Gerald “Stretch” Blackard and his wife Sara moved to the tiny Alaskan town of Tok from his native western Colorado about 11 years ago. In 2017, they purchased Tok Transportation, which has been providing school bus services to Tok School since the 1980s. The company carries up to 87 students on a school day. Last year, the Blackards acquired the town’s first electric bus and got to see first-hand how it performs in sub-zero temperatures. The bus was partially paid for with funds from a program run by the Alaska Energy Authority.
In this interview with School Bus Fleet, Stretch Blackard talks about his experiences with the Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley and shares advice for other school transportation leaders considering the shift to electric.
What concerns did you have about purchasing an electric bus for a town where temperatures can drop to -71 degrees?
The biggest concern I had before receiving the bus was keeping the interior warm. School buses are not very well insulated.
How has the Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley performed since it joined your fleet in Tok?
The bus has performed well. There is a bit of a learning curve going from diesel bus to electric. The electric motor, shifting, and brakes are different.
What kind of maintenance or pre-ride prep work is required for the Jouley, especially when it gets so cold? What challenges arise when you’re balancing heating the passenger cabin against prolonging power in the battery?
As part of daily pre-trips, there is nothing different from warmer days. We have put insulation around the battery, covered the front grill vent, wrapped under the engine bay with insulation. This week we insulated the electric heaters to keep them from losing as much heat to the outdoors. Driver comfort is the biggest factor that affects battery usage on days with temps between 30 F to -20 F. We can have a 1kw per mile change in battery usage between drivers. When we get temps below -20 F the usage doesn't change much. The bus uses more electricity to heat than all other circuits combined.
What advice do you have for school districts – regardless of climate – that are considering the purchase of electric buses for their fleets?
I think the most overlooked concern is the effect driver habits and comfort have on consumption. Every fleet manager knows the effect an aggressive driver has on a conventional diesel or gas bus: poor mileage, brakes worn faster, drivetrain damage, etc. With our electric bus, the regenerative braking works very well so brakes have become less of an issue, acceleration would be a similar issue as a conventional bus. Like I said previously, the driver comfort level has been our biggest factor.
What sort of charging infrastructure do you use?
We use an ABB 22KW charger on 240v.