Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools is partnering with Highland Electric Transportation to begin converting over 20% of its school bus fleet from diesel to electric over the next four years. Shown here is one of the district's diesel buses. - Photo courtesy Montgomery County Public Schools

Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools is partnering with Highland Electric Transportation to begin converting over 20% of its school bus fleet from diesel to electric over the next four years. Shown here is one of the district's diesel buses.

Photo courtesy Montgomery County Public Schools

A Maryland school district is partnering with an electric vehicle services company to begin converting over 20% of its school bus fleet from diesel to electric — with or without grants — over the next four years.

As part of its commitment to sustainability, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is replacing 326 diesel school buses with electric school buses, according to a news release from the district.

This project represents the largest single procurement of electric school buses in North America, Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), the parent company of Thomas Built Buses, stated in a news release on Thursday.

The buses will be built by Thomas Built Buses, Todd Watkins, the director of transportation for MCPS, told School Bus Fleet on Wednesday. The Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley buses are powered by Proterra’s electric vehicle technology platform. The Jouley couples 226 kilowatt hours (kWh) of total energy capacity with Proterra's drivetrain to offer an operating range of up to 135 miles on a single charge, according to a news release from Proterra.

The Montgomery County Board of Education approved on Tuesday a four-year contract between MCPS and HET MCPS LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary created by Massachusetts-based Highland Electric Transportation Inc. (HET), for the purpose of the project, according to the district's news release.

The vendor will invest in the up-front costs of purchasing the electric school buses with a plan to recoup that investment over time through decreasing vehicle prices, less expensive fuel, and maintenance savings. The lease price MCPS will pay covers use of the buses, all charging infrastructure, charge management, electricity, and maintenance reimbursement.

The total lifetime contract cost for the 326 buses, which will replace the same number of diesel buses in the current fleet, is $168,684,990, according to the district’s news release. MCPS expects to cover the cost of the contract over time with funds that otherwise would have been spent purchasing and operating diesel school buses.

Watkins said that the conversion project is believed to be the first electric school bus contract in the U.S. in which the school district is not dependent upon grants.

"[HET] has taken on the risk [of not having grant support],” he added. “The intention was to build this [contract] in a way where whether or not a single dollar of grant money came through, we as a school system could still afford to do it. They have taken the risk out of the equation for us."

One grant, however, has come in so far: the project was awarded $817,000 from Maryland Energy Association, which helps offset the purchase cost of vehicles that is critical at this early stage of mass deployment, DTNA stated in a news release on Thursday. 

The project is also kept budget-neutral for the school district by applying vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology. The buses' batteries will deliver stored electricity to the local electricity markets through public utility Pepco, which helps the community integrate renewable energy and support grid resiliency, according to DTNA and Proterra. HET is taking on the obligation of internalizing these values, which shift the cost of ownership for the electrified fleets.

MCPS’s current fleet of 1,422 buses is powered by diesel engines. On a typical school day, the buses use approximately 17,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Diesel buses emit greenhouse gases; electric school buses do not have any tailpipe emissions, the district pointed out in the news release.

“MCPS has been working to increase sustainable practices in all aspects of our school system operations,” said Jack Smith, the district’s superintendent, in the district's news release. “It’s critical that we be good stewards of our natural resources and do our part to protect the environment.”

Watkins added that the district will buy 113 diesel and lease 25 electric buses this year and 59 diesel and lease 61 electric buses in 2022, with that being the last year that the district will buy diesel buses. MCPS will lease 120 electric buses in 2023 and 2024.

The district will eventually replace its entire fleet in one 12-year cycle, Watkins said.

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