Image Courtesy of Thomas Built Buses

Image Courtesy of Thomas Built Buses

The EPA’s monumental Clean School Bus rebate program has enabled many schools across the U.S. to receive funding to replace old buses with new electric or low-emission models. With more than $1 billion in funds awarded, the task of figuring out the required charging infrastructure for your new electric school buses, the associated costs and options can feel overwhelming.

With the variety of EV infrastructure options out there, careful planning and consideration are necessary to ensure you get the most out of your allocated funding, including different types of charging equipment available to you, associated costs, and how much of those costs are covered by the EPA.

Charging Options Available

There are three levels of charging: Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3. Levels 1 and 2 convert alternating current (AC) energy from the grid to direct current (DC) energy onboard the vehicle. Level 3 involves DC fast charging, which uses a high-voltage DC connection to charge an EV quickly, converting AC to DC energy within the charging station, and feeding power directly to the school bus battery without the need for an onboard charger to convert it.

That’s a lot of acronyms, so let's break it down. Because AC charging equipment can be cheaper upfront, some may think it’s the better option as they can pay less for chargers (which fall under the greenlit “fleet side” of EPA fund allocation) and use leftover EPA funds towards additional infrastructure costs on the “utility side” - including the transformers, switch gears and electric meters. This is not the case.

Though the Clean School Bus funds provided by the EPA can cover much of the “fleet side” of charging infrastructure, including the vehicle and the charging units, many districts will still need additional funds to cover the “utility side.” For these costs, districts will have to utilize additional incentives outside of the Clean School Bus funds, including utility make-ready programs.

“While DC charging is more expensive upfront, it is more effective in the long run by providing a quicker charge, more than twice as fast as AC. This is also because DC chargers utilize a charging management system to charge the bus at optimal times, thereby decreasing long-term operational costs,” said Mark Childers, Powertrain and Technology Sales Manager for Thomas Built Buses. “This highlights why DC charging is the future of electric school bus charging, allowing for a more efficient, cost-effective, and reliable charging experience."

Managed Charging vs. Unmanaged Charging

Think of AC charging like plugging in your television. The unit is still pulling power from the grid regardless of time of day or whether you’re actively streaming.

Where an AC charger will charge the vehicle until it is unplugged without regard for peak demand hours (unmanaged charging), a DC charger understands when exactly to charge a bus (managed or “smart” charging).

By managing the optimal times to pull power from the grid via a charge management system, DC chargers provide an additional layer of cost savings by monitoring and then informing a charger of the best, most cost-efficient opportunity to charge the bus, avoiding peak demand hours and saving you money in the long run.

This is called charge load management, which involves optimizing charging loads and evenly distributing electricity to not overpower the grid and save you money, which is not currently an option for AC charging.

Contact Your Utility Provider

Beyond charging stations, districts need to consider other infrastructure needs when prepping for the switch to electric buses. Both your utility provider and your local dealer should be your go-to resources for getting these discussions started.

When beginning to discuss infrastructure needs, your dedicated team can help analyze your fleet size and growth plans, in addition to evaluating your energy needs. They will do this by determining the type and number of charging stations to install, plus whether existing structures can handle the increased amount of power an electrified fleet will demand.

Some utility companies may offer incentives and make-ready programs for things like transponders or meters because this technology is a new source of revenue for their business. However, like most of the world, utility companies move slowly and face the same lead time issues so it’s important to engage them in the process both early and often.

“It's important to involve your utility provider in the process as early as possible,” continued Childers. “They can make recommendations like a dedicated meter and transformer for your bus fleet, which creates a level of transparency in your power bill. By having a meter specifically for a district’s field of EV chargers, districts will know exactly how much they are paying that month for charging their buses as opposed to those costs being layered into the overall power bill.”

Available Resources

The World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative provides resources that can help explain how to close the funding gap for essential EV charging infrastructure through make-ready programs.

Other resources providing charging infrastructure consultancy services also exist like Thomas Built Bus’s Electric Bus Authority (EBA). The EBA can meet with your district to evaluate your operations, providing route analysis, site plans and additional reports to aid you in electrification efforts. They can also help districts understand what utility incentives are available in their area and how to engage their school boards for additional funding.

To get started on the road to EV or to explore infrastructure options for your fleet or district, contact your utility provider or the Electric Bus Authority at Thomas Built Buses.