Two school districts recently committed to transition to full electrification of their school bus fleets versus the typical practice of running a pilot with one or two, as more funding options and partnerships have become available.
The secret to the success of both of these districts’ plans so far has been finding support to keep the transition from costing their districts extra money. One district is also anticipating solid community buy-in in the form of a vote.
Meanwhile, a third school district has been working on switching its entire fleet to electric for at least a year and is looking at completing the task in just under three years.
Staying Budget Neutral
In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is replacing 326 diesel school buses with electric school buses — more than 20% of its fleet of 1,422 diesel buses — over the next four years as the first step to going all-electric.
The Montgomery County Board of Education approved a four-year contract between MCPS and HET MCPS LLC, a subsidiary created by Massachusetts-based Highland Electric Transportation Inc. (HET). 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 the use of the buses, all charging infrastructure, charge management, electricity, and maintenance reimbursement.
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, Todd Watkins, the district’s director of transportation, told School Bus Fleet in February. MCPS will lease 120 electric buses in 2023 and 2024.
The district will eventually replace its entire fleet in one 12-year cycle, Watkins says.
The decision to begin a full transition to electric school buses was based not only on the district’s commitment to enhancing its sustainable practices, he adds, but its ability to not have to depend on grants to keep the conversion process afloat.
Before he became aware of the option to work with a turnkey solutions provider for electric buses, he was thinking the plan would be to buy one or two of the buses with Volkswagen (VW) settlement money. He was, however, concerned about “opening the electric bus can of worms,” he says.
“I figured that once you do that, the environmentalists won’t let you turn back, and what are we going to do if the grant money dries up?” he explains. “That gave me this great reluctance to move forward with electric because I didn’t want to start something we couldn’t sustain and afford to continue and [risk being] harshly criticized if we stopped.”
Then about a year ago, he started researching the potential of partnerships that would be budget neutral for the district, and that led to the fixed-price contract with the HET subsidiary.
“Not only are we saving what we otherwise would spend buying diesel buses, [while we] lease these buses from HET, but there are savings on electric buses [in term of fuel and maintenance] compared to diesel,” Watkins says.
Another source of revenue for the project, to be supervised by HET, is vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capability, which allows the buses’ batteries to store energy that can then be sold to the local power grid.
“I am hoping this will be a model that opens doors for others that have the same reluctance that I did to say, ‘I can do this with existing funds,’” Watkins says.
Getting Community Buy-In
Like MCPS, a school district in New York state may soon begin transitioning its bus fleet from diesel and gasoline to electric — ideally without extra costs over time — if voters approve a bus purchase proposition.
As of the 2021-22 school year, Bethlehem Central School District in Delmar would be one of the first school districts in the state to move toward full fleet electrification by replacing up to nine buses in its 132-bus fleet next year. (White Plains City School District currently contracts with National Express to run five electric school buses.)
Residents will ultimately make the call on a commitment to electric vehicles with the proposition as part of the annual school district budget vote, which will be held in May. (State law requires voter approval for the purchase of school buses using debt financing or as a capital expenditure, says Karim Johnson, the district’s director of student transportation.)
The COVID-19 pandemic was a factor in spurring the plan for full-fleet electrification, he adds. The savings that resulted from the reduced operations created a situation that has allowed the district to seek technological upgrades and move toward fleet electrification as part of its annual fleet replacement plan.
That plan, designed to make the bus purchases cost-neutral, would allocate over $1.6 million for the purchase of up to nine Type C electric buses and charging stations.
Since nine Type C school buses due for replacement this school year are all 2009 models, Johnson says it made sense to try to maximize available incentives on these older models by proposing to replace all of them with electric school buses. The district is confident it can secure at least $1 million in grants from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) to use to purchase five electric buses in 2021-22, with hopes of accessing more of the grant funds to replace all nine with electric in the coming year.
The amount included in the proposition is the district’s portion of the total cost of replacing the nine 2009 buses minus the $200,000 grant per school bus through the New York Truck Voucher Incentive Program (NYTVIP), which is administered by NYSERDA.
Continuing to replace diesel school buses with electric during the district’s normal replacement schedule will depend on the total cost of ownership of the electric school bus being comparable to the total cost of ownership of a diesel school bus, Johnson says, and the only way to achieve that now is through the NYTVIP grant.
That funding is crucial to bringing the electric buses aboard because the amount of money the district would receive brings the price tag of a new electric bus within $40,000 of the cost of a new diesel bus.
Additionally, the NYTVIP grant brings down the total cost of ownership over the useful life of the electric bus within $800 of a diesel bus, Johnson adds.
“As the purchase price of electric school buses decrease, there will come a point where the total cost of ownership of the electric school bus will be less than the total cost of ownership of a diesel school bus,” he says.
Since arriving at the district in December 2020, Johnson was brought into discussions, which initially were academic only, about electrification. As his team met with members of the community, district administration, and vendors, however, the conversation quickly shifted toward an actionable plan, he says.
“Based on our current fleet replacement status, available grant monies through our state, and current district financial position, my recommendation to my district business official was to move forward with a flexible plan to begin the electrification of our school bus fleet,” he adds.
The plan’s flexibility lies in the ability to buy diesel buses if for some reason grant funding becomes unavailable for some or all of the electric buses, or other unforeseen circumstances prevent the district from purchasing electric school buses this fleet replacement cycle.
The school board and community have been supportive of the electrification efforts, and the district expects that to continue, Johnson says.
“It is our hope that with the national climate moving toward electrification, there will be additional funding opportunities for school districts such as ours to continue towards electrification of their entire bus fleets,” he adds.
In California, Twin Rivers Unified School District (USD) has had plans in place for over a year to transition to an all-electric school bus fleet and partnered with an electric vehicle software supplier for charging management and data collection in February 2020.
Twin Rivers USD, which has been running electric buses since 2016, expanded the electric-powered portion of its fleet by 25% in December when it received 10 LionC school buses. The district now has 40 electric buses in its fleet, which totals 130 buses, and plans to move to full electrification in the next two-and-a-half years, says Tim Shannon, the district’s director of transportation.