It may sound good in theory, the premise of replacing older diesel school buses with cleaner electric school buses using state and federal funds.
But some state directors warn that it’s better to go slow and plan carefully to ensure that the technology is right for a given school district, even with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dispensing billions of dollars for the cause.
In particular, the common refrain: think about infrastructure.
Kevin Harrison, state transportation director for North Carolina, joined Keith Dreiling (state director for Kansas) and Gabriel Rose (state director for Maryland) for a panel discussion on the topic of electric bus experiences at the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services annual conference.
Infrastructure is a district cost in North Carolina, Harrison said. The state helps pay for buses, but electric charging infrastructure falls to the local districts. The Clean School Bus Program might pay for a chunk of the cost of installing chargers at the outset. But what happens in a decade when those chargers may need replacement?
“It’s not going to last like an underground storage tank,” Harrison said. “These chargers might be 10 years. These chargers have lifespans. And if you’re buying a $50,000 charger, you need to keep that in mind that you may be paying as much for that charger as you were in diesel fuel each year, just to keep the charger up, components repaired, and replaced when necessary.”
Keeping within the Lines in Kansas
In Kansas, the state has met some friction – not insurmountable – when making sure that the new Lion Electric school buses matched regulations. As an example, the Lion buses couldn’t have their familiar blue bumpers or wheels, and the Lion lightning bolt decal couldn’t be affixed to the lower window of the emergency exit door.
In another situation, one Kansas district wanted to order Type A electric school buses that started out as gasoline-powered vehicles, only to discover that conversions aren’t covered under the Clean School Bus Program.
Kansas has updated training requirements for inspectors performing mechanic inspections of electric school buses on such facets as:
- High-voltage cables and wiring.
- Fuses, breakers, and manual disconnects.
- Thermal management systems for batteries.
- Charging ports.
- Fault detection systems.
Dreiling pointed out that the EPA made quite a show of the first electric school buses coming to Alma, Kansas, courtesy of the Clean School Bus Program. A weary school district administrator told him: “All I wanted was a couple of free buses. I never planned on all of this other hoopla.”
Meeting the Maryland Mandate
Maryland is operating under the Climate Solutions Now Act, which requires that school districts purchase only zero-emission vehicles as of fiscal year 2025 and that districts can’t use a non-zero-emission vehicle unless the school bus has an in-service date of July 1, 2024, or earlier.
Said Rose of the experience in Maryland: “The biggest issue as we’ve heard this morning is infrastructure. It’s easier to put in a tank versus a charger for every bus. And in Maryland, we’re like an old 1800s house that we see a brand new dishwasher put in. We don’t have the space and we don’t have the infrastructure to take one. So trying to find a place where we can put a huge footprint of chargers is difficult.”
As of July 2023, Maryland had 91 electric school buses:
- Prince George’s County: 1.
- Howard County: 2.
- Frederick County: 2.
- Montgomery County: 86.
Taking It Slower in the Tarheel State
North Carolina has eased into electric buses, using Volkswagen Settlement funds for its first five Thomas Built Bus and IC Bus vehicles in Randolph, Cabarrus, Transylvania, New Hanover, and Rowan counties. All those buses were received as of last week, Harrison said.
The second round of VW-funded efforts in North Carolina will include 31 Blue Bird, IC Bus, and Thomas Built vehicles in about 22 counties.
The state’s goals:
- Get small numbers of electric buses to as many school districts as want them, where grant funding is available. This can help expand the state’s knowledge of the fleet electrification startup process, provide technician experience, and (hopefully) generate positive experiences.
- Learn more about the technology and its challenges. Figure out the specifications to implement in new contracts. Make changes to maintenance and monthly inspections.
- Build local support and aim for favorable media coverage.
Bad word of mouth about the technology could prove fatal to the federal government’s efforts to encourage adoption, Harrison said.
“The fastest thing to torpedo something to do with new technology is to have school transportation people talk to each other about how miserable their experience was,” he said. “Right? That will end it, not for a year or two years. It’ll end it for 20. Because it may be the future, but it’s not yet practical or cost effective at scale.”
Originally posted on School Bus Fleet