-  Photo Courtesy of Middlesex County Public Schools

Photo Courtesy of Middlesex County Public Schools

If you were to pass through Locust Hill, Virginia on any given weekday afternoon, you would find a local school district’s badge of honor on display: two battery-electric school buses, plugged in and re-charging from a busy day of transporting Virginia’s students.

We spoke to the man in charge of these buses: Dustin Harris, director of operations and transportation for Middlesex County Public Schools (MCPS), a three-school district comprised of Middlesex Elementary and St. Clare Walker Middle in Locust Hill and Middlesex High in Saluda. Harris and his team are responsible for transporting nearly 1,200 students in the county.

With two Proterra-powered Saf-T-Liner® C2 Jouley® battery-electric school buses from Thomas Built Buses currently in MCPS’s fleet of 20 buses (and two more arriving next week), the school is proud to pioneer clean energy efforts in its tightknit, interconnected community. MCPS received their first two electric buses as part of Dominion Energy’s Electric School Bus Program in January 2021, and will receive another two in the final weeks of October 2022 through Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) School Bus Program.

 

Could you tell me a little bit more about what made you explore electric school buses?

This came on the coattails of our solar initiative. By 2019, all three of our schools were the first in the county to be 100% solar-powered. With the success of that program, we were already reducing our footprint through sustainable energy sources and taking some of those risks. When we were contacted by Dominion Energy about their Electric School Bus Program and the opportunity to receive our first two electric buses, it only made sense. Because it's a reimbursement program that bridges the funding gap between electric and traditional fuel methods, there was nothing to lose on our end. We are still budgeting and paying the same amount we would for a new diesel bus but receiving all the benefits of EV, including quieter operation, lower operating costs and zero emissions. The district had already begun to see the cost-savings we had received from our solar energy program, and our community saw the payoff we were receiving for the risks we had taken.

As a result, folks were looking to us as leaders in clean energy. People were knocking on Middlesex County’s doors to come and visit our schools, tour our facilities, see our solar fields, and ride on our buses. Normally, it’s easy for people to pass up small divisions like us, but now we stand out. And I like to think we stand out because of the risks we've taken to get here.

 

Tell us about the buses you received. They were Jouleys?

Yes, all four are Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouleys. Our local dealer is Sonny Merryman and they let us know when the Jouley was awarded the contract with Dominion Energy. We had already begun transitioning older Blue Bird and IC buses in our fleet of 20 to the diesel-powered C2s from Thomas Built, so it was an added benefit that we were able to streamline our school bus provider for several reasons – ease of operations, training efficiency, parts availability and familiarity.

Additionally, it was important for us to make - and continue - the transition to electric at a responsible pace. We want to allow our drivers and our district to get comfortable implementing the buses we have on our routes. As we’ve gotten comfortable, we've been able to challenge their range and show folks how much we can save and how far we can take them.

 

What has the feedback been from your community?

I can speak until I'm blue in the face on the benefits of EV and the cost savings for us, but there’s nothing quite like letting someone experience the buses themselves.

We have one driver who's been driving diesel for more than a decade and is now operating one of the electric buses we got in January of 2021, and she’s become such a big advocate.

After someone experiences the nuances that come with driving the bus and managing the kids you’re transporting – it’s a different ride. It's a much quieter ride for one. Some drivers will have upwards of 50 to 60 students behind them who they are expected to safely manage every morning and afternoon. And trying to manage over the noise that a diesel bus can produce can be particularly challenging. Put that same driver in an electric bus, and it becomes a much calmer experience for both students and drivers.

As a current driver, former teacher, and former assistant principal who has dealt with student behavior from all angles, it's interesting to me that we see a decrease in referral issues from kids on the electric bus. We can dig into the dirt on that - they're not having to scream or elevate their voice to combat the extra noise diesel buses present – but put simply: when you're calm, the kids are calm. They're a reflection of you.

Everyone has their own opinions and perspectives toward electrification and the right path and pace for EV - and we have dealt with naysayers - but our community had already begun to see the benefits from our solar program, so I don’t feel like we had to deal with as much of that negative feedback as other, larger school districts.

 

And how have the students responded to the electric buses?

The nature of an electric vehicle changes the whole bus atmosphere. The bus is normally a chaotic environment, but the Jouley feels more controlled, almost like a classroom on wheels. The experience is static. The quietness leads to a much more comfortable ride for both the driver and the kids.

Kids are also curious and interested in this technology because they're learning about it in school. They don't have any preconceived opinions toward diesel versus electric like adults do. They’re learning in school about how to be great community members and how to be environmentally conscious. No kid is stepping on an electric school bus and saying, “this is a horrible investment - put me back on the diesel buses.” They just love it.

We try to cycle it through the community so kids outside of the electric school bus-assigned routes get to experience it. People want us to pop the hood and look at what's under it; they want to hear it running. Because if you don't know what you're looking for, it looks like a regular bus.

I do a lot of sub driving, and I had the opportunity to cover for one of our electric bus drivers who was covering a different route with kids who had never ridden an electric bus before. When the kids walked on one of our Jouley buses, they treated it like a museum, like something they had never seen before. They were quiet, they couldn't believe the bus they were on, that it was moving. They wanted me to bring it back every day.

 

What has technical support been like for the new buses?

I have no fear of testing the limits of these machines because I know the support we have from not just Sonny Merryman, but Thomas Built is unparalleled. Nobody wants us to fail, so we won’t. Any setbacks are small and quickly resolved. A big part of taking this risk and venturing into electrification is having that support, knowing we’re not blazing this trail blindly.

We just hired a new fleet manager and Sonny Merryman spent two full days with him to make sure he was well-versed in all things electric, so he could go out and be an extension of their team in the field, to communicate any issues that may be going on and how to quickly resolve them.

 

Can you speak more about cost savings?

Looking at what it costs us per mile, kilowatt-hours (kWh) versus what we're paying for diesel, I can compare what each trip will cost our district and make recommendations from there. The money put back into the school’s budget from a simple field trip isn’t super noticeable but when you start to add up every trip, it gets tangible. The district sees that we can provide the same experience to those kids at a much cheaper rate by taking our electric bus.

For example, we took a field trip from Middlesex Elementary School to James City County, Virginia. We began the trip with a fully charged battery and returned with 25% battery life. This trip cost MCPS $15.50 in energy, compared to what would have been $42.70 in diesel fuel. Now multiply that throughout the year.

 

What do future electrification plans look like at MCPS?

We need to keep moving forward and looking at how we can responsibly get more electric buses on the road. We want to do it in a way in which we're still holding on to what we know works as well as continuing to push for change, keeping people a little out of their comfort level.

We want to have all of our electric buses in good shape, and we want to get everybody comfortable with them. From there, we want people to know that we're implementing at a rate that is responsible for our small fleet and community.

I feel like it's part of my job to help communicate the positive aspects of adding electric buses to your fleet, especially now, when it seems like there's so much division about the right way to move forward. I am an unbiased user, grinding out here like everybody else. But because I oversee the operation of the bus shop, I can see the savings. And because I still drive, I can see the experience an electric bus gives the kids – and drivers. It's a no-brainer at that point.

But it's about taking those risks for the benefit of our community and for our students. It’s all about shifting perspectives and making people think outside of the box and to not get stuck in their old ways. We’ve got to move forward. I'm always going to be grounded on one foot, while also trying to figure out where my next foot can take a leap.

 

BY THE NUMBERS:

District: Middlesex County Public Schools

Area: 211 square miles

Population: 10,642

Schools: 3 (Middlesex Elementary, St. Clare Walker Middle, Middlesex High)

Enrollment: 1,166

2021: MCPS received their first two electric buses as part of Dominion Energy’s Electric School Bus Program

2022: MCPS received two more electric buses as part of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean School Bus Program

20: Number of buses in yellow bus fleet and percentage of yellow bus fleet that is fully electric

1.51: Average kilowatt-hour (kWh) MCPS buses used per mile in 2022, with a rate of $.11/kWh, costing an average of $.17/mile in energy to run

91: Longest trip taken (in miles) with an MCPS electric bus