Three school districts have purchased a total of 17 Blue Bird Vision Propane buses.
With more offerings than ever, the technology and benefits from electric buses are generally proven. But where are they operating today? Is there funding available to help school districts outside California afford the vehicles? What about other obstacles, such as extremely cold weather?
There are now more companies manufacturing electric school buses and converting fossil fuel powered buses than just a few years ago. However, the buses have just become commercially available in the last year, says John Clements, vice president of electric bus sales for First Priority Bus Sales – California.
Consequently, it could just be a matter of time before the school bus market introduces more electric buses into its fleets, following in the footsteps of the transit market, says Fraser Atkinson, executive chairman of Canada-based GreenPower. Production is growing and driving costs down, and battery capabilities are improving.
In addition to Gilroy (Calif.) Unified School District, which has been operating an electric school bus converted from diesel by Adomani since 2014, the zero-emissions vehicle solutions supplier is converting diesel school buses to electric power or replacing buses for about 25 school districts.
On the road
Kings Canyon Unified School District (USD) in California put two Trans Tech SSTe Type A buses into operation on special-needs routes in 2014, and soon after, ordered two more, which were delivered in March. Now, the first two are being retrofitted by Motiv with the high-voltage system needed to accommodate a new Spheros air conditioning system, Clements says.
The buses have been used occasionally on routes that range from 14 to 37 miles round trip, and the district plans to extend one of those routes to about 60 miles round-trip to pick up more students.
“This bus will be ideal for [the route] because to run a full-size hybrid or natural gas bus is costly, compared to the 7 to 14 cents a kilowatt hour for an electric school bus,” he adds.
In November, Lion Bus delivered six eLion Type C electric school buses to school transportation contractors in Quebec, and now has over 20 of the buses on the road, says Marc-Andre Page, business development manager at Lion Bus. Lion expects to put a total of about 70 eLions into operation in the province by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
The biggest advantages of electric school buses, all sources say, are zero emissions, and that they provide the lowest and most stable operating cost of any fuel.
TransPower’s Goldman notes that electricity is often cheaper and more efficient, even with today’s low diesel, propane, and CNG prices.
Motiv’s Castelaz agrees, adding that electric buses pay for themselves over their lifetime.
“[A school transportation provider] will know exactly how much money they need to operate the bus every year for the next ten years,” he says. “You can’t do that with any other alternative fuel today, because fuel prices are very volatile right now.”
Electric school buses also require very little maintenance. Minimal lubricant is needed, and brakes need to be replaced much less frequently, since regenerative braking is done from the electric drive.
Charging the buses at off-peak hours can save even more money.
“Peak time is probably 22 to 24 cents per kilowatt hour. Off peak is 6 to 8 cents per kilowatt hour,” Adomani’s Reynolds says. “If you’re traveling 100 miles a day and using the bus eight or nine months out of the year, you’re probably going to save in the neighborhood of $22,000 just in fuel costs over diesel.”
Of particular benefit to those aboard the buses is that they often run smoother and quieter, enhancing safety, Reynolds adds.
“Without the engine noise, the bus driver can be more attentive to traffic and to what’s going on inside the bus,” he says.
Meanwhile, over the last six months, higher energy density batteries that can power buses for a longer distance have been introduced, Clements says. The battery configurations generally offer 60 to 80 miles of range per 50% charge of a few hours, with ranges of 100 to 125 miles on the horizon.
For example, the eLion used to have seven batteries. After a recent makeover, it now has four LG Chem batteries that can power the bus for longer.
Additionally, for a slightly higher price, GreenPower’s 40-kilowatt charging system fully charges a bus in three hours or less, Atkinson says.
“Compared to where this industry was five years ago, that’s pretty fast,” he adds.
To maximize the range of an electric school bus, school transportation providers should consider garage and bus yard locations in relation to their routes, Adomani’s Reynolds says. One district the manufacturer worked with needed an 80-mile range, but their budget only allowed for a 65-mile range bus. On second glance, the district was able to move buses to different yards and cut the range down to 45 miles.
Another benefit that is on the way is vehicle-to-grid technology, which uses a bidirectional charger to tap the energy stored in the bus’ batteries to power buildings during an outage or sell power back to the utility company, saving money on utility bills. Plugging the buses in to the building can send power back during peak loading, which releases stress on the grid and lowers the facility’s electricity bill. That is especially handy over the summer, when school buses are more available, and the grid experiences the biggest peaks due to air conditioning loads.
Some bus models have shown that each school bus could save a school district from $5,000 to $10,000 annually in utility bills, TransPower’s Goldman notes.
Motiv’s buses can be upfit with software and hardware to enable vehicle-to-grid capability, and Lion Bus expects to have some vehicle-to grid capabilities beginning next fall.
Kings Canyon is discussing possibly adding vehicle-to-grid technology on its SSTe buses with its utility company.
Then again, there are many regulations governing how electricity is bought and sold in Massachusetts, Whitaker says. Because of that, the four school buses in the pilot may only be able to test vehicle-to-grid technology using solar panels at the districts that have them.
New England has another hurdle that California doesn’t: much colder winters.
California’s electric school buses have typically not been equipped with heating units. However, because the Massachusetts Department of Motor Vehicles requires the buses to maintain a certain cabin temperature — for example, when it’s 20 degrees out, it has to be at least 60 degrees inside the bus — bus heaters are necessary. Heating the bus with an electric heater would drain the battery by about half of the bus’ range.
For that reason, VEIC is looking into installing a diesel or propane unit heater on the buses during the winter. Lion offers two different heating systems: an all-electric heating system that produces zero emissions, and a fuel-fire heater from Webasto or Proheat. The heaters can be powered by diesel, propane, or gasoline, Page says.
Electric buses may be safe, reliable, clean, quiet, and cheaper to operate, but they are still much more expensive to buy. The initial cost may put them out of reach for many districts without significant funding.
An electric school bus costs about $100,000 to $120,000 more than a diesel school bus; propane buses cost about $15,000 more; and CNG buses are about $40,000 to $45,000 more expensive, according to Adomani’s Reynolds.
However, while there is a significant difference between the capital cost of an electric bus and a diesel bus, that gap is going to close quickly over the next couple of years, Atkinson says.
Eventually, Goldman expects suppliers like TransPower to work with bus manufacturers on high-volume factory line installation to continue to reduce prices. He also points to the possibility of battery rent-to-own or lease programs for lower monthly costs than buying diesel.
Three school districts have purchased a total of 17 Blue Bird Vision Propane buses.
Mark Riccio, the former alternative fuels manager for Blue Bird, is the new vice president of sales at Highland Electric Transportation Inc.
Logan Bus Co. is working with electric vehicle charging solutions provider Amply Power to convert the buses to electric and put them on the road in September 2020.
L.D. No. 1894 would set a goal for the state Department of Education to develop rules on bids, specifications, charging stations, and a maintenance training program, and to complete the transition by 2040.
The school divisions will receive a total of 50 Thomas Built Buses’ Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley buses for phase one of the power and electric company’s electric school bus program.
HB 1140 would establish grants to help schools to replace diesel buses with electric buses by 2030. It would also help recipients share information about their experiences with the alternative-fuel vehicles.
Three of the state’s school districts and one transit agency will receive electric buses backed by Volkswagen settlement funds.
The Virginia-based power and electric company selects Thomas Built Buses to supply 50 of its Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley buses for phase one of its electric school bus program.
The agency anticipates making between 40 and 60 grant agreements for projects aimed at reducing emissions from aging diesel engines, including those in school buses.
Triad Community Unit School District #2 will receive the buses, which were sold by Creative Bus Sales and will be built by Starcraft Bus. The buses are funded by the state’s second round of VW settlement funds.
The fourth-largest district school bus fleet in the U.S., according to School Bus Fleet's research, commits to transitioning to 100% clean, renewable energy by 2040.
The state’s second round of Volkswagen settlement funding will be used to support a total of 15 clean air projects that will reportedly reduce almost 68 tons of nitrogen oxide emissions.
The new buses for Suffolk Transportation and Bay Shore Union Free School District are part of the first production line series of electric models from Blue Bird.
The Missouri Propane Education and Research Council’s rebate to Student Transportation of America is for its purchase of 10 of the alternative-fuel buses. The council has committed $1 million to help school districts in the state transition from diesel to propane buses.
Henry County Schools' Blue Bird Vision propane buses are expected to emit 500 fewer pounds of particulate matter per year and about 19,000 fewer pounds of nitrogen oxide than the diesel buses they replaced.
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