Yel­low school buses go a lit­tle more green

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY ELLEN ROSEN

Just ask any par­ent – yel­low school buses, with their clas­sic look, sig­na­ture smell and rum­bling sound, re­main largely un­changed from decades past. But with ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy, those old buses are be­gin­ning to reach the end of the line.

A small but grow­ing num­ber of school dis­tricts are be­gin­ning to re­place th­ese older fos­sil fuel mod­els with new elec­tric buses. Mo­ti­vated by ev­i­dence of the harm­ful ef­fects of par­tic­u­late emis­sions on both stu­dents’ health and per­for­mance and in an ef­fort to re­duce fuel costs and save on main­te­nance, a few in­no­va­tive dis­tricts are mak­ing the tran­si­tion.

The big­gest ob­sta­cle is the sig­nif­i­cantly higher cost of elec­tric buses, which can be at least two to three times as ex­pen­sive as re­place­ment buses pow­ered by diesel or an­other al­ter­na­tive fuel (there are also costs as­so­ci­ated with in­stalling charg­ing equip­ment). Dis­tricts are get­ting help to off­set the ex­tra costs from sources in­clud­ing grants and le­gal set­tle­ments. And sev­eral util­i­ties, mo­ti­vated by en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns as well as the po­ten­tial to help lighten the elec­tri­cal grid load, have stepped up to help has­ten the process.

On Dec. 16, Do­min­ion En­ergy, a util­ity based in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, an­nounced that it had cho­sen Thomas Built Buses, one of the old­est school bus man­u­fac­tur­ers in the United States, to pro­vide 50 elec­tric school buses for dis­tricts across its home state. Six­teen school dis­tricts, in­clud­ing Alexan­dria, Ar­ling­ton, Nor­folk and Rich­mond City, are the first re­cip­i­ents, Do­min­ion said in a state­ment Jan. 16.

Un­der the pro­gram, Do­min­ion, which pro­vides power to about 7.5 mil­lion cus­tomers in 18 states, will pay for in­fra­struc­ture like the wiring and charg­ing sta­tions. An elec­tric bus can cost as much as $400,000; the util­ity will ab­sorb the $200,000 or greater cost dif­fer­ence be­tween a diesel and an elec­tric bus be­cause many school dis­tricts find that pro­hib­i­tive.

While es­ti­mates vary, Mark Webb, se­nior vice pres­i­dent and chief in­no­va­tion of­fi­cer for Do­min­ion, said in an in­ter­view that the ini­tia­tive is part of the com­pany’s over­all ef­forts to help re­duce pol­lu­tion and in­crease sus­tain­abil­ity. “Trans­porta­tion is the No. 1 source of emis­sions,” he said.

The an­nounce­ment is just the first phase of the util­ity’s plan, Webb said. Do­min­ion wants to in­crease the num­ber of elec­tric buses on the road so that by 2030, 100% of the new pur­chases are elec­tric.

The Thomas buses, av­er­ag­ing 134 miles on a full charge of their 220 kilowatt-hour bat­tery, are a blend­ing of old and new. The com­pany, which is based in High Point, North Carolina, be­gan as a street­car man­u­fac­turer in 1916 and started pro­duc­ing buses a lit­tle more than 80 years ago, said Ca­ley Edgerly, the pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Its elec­tric buses, named Jouley, not only draw from in­no­va­tion within its par­ent com­pany, Daim­ler, but also in­cor­po­rate the tech­nol­ogy of Proterra, an elec­tric tran­sit bus and bat­tery man­u­fac­turer based in Burlingame, Cal­i­for­nia, that has con­tracted to pro­vide elec­tric tran­sit buses to 100 cities in the United States and Canada.

Do­min­ion is fol­low­ing other util­i­ties into the elec­tric school bus mar­ket, in­clud­ing Con­sol­i­dated Edi­son’s pilot project in White Plains, New York, and the Sacra­mento Mu­nic­i­pal Util­ity Dis­trict in Cal­i­for­nia. The util­i­ties’ in­ter­ests stem from two dis­tinct goals.

The first is the im­pact the buses have on re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion. School buses are of­ten thought to be the safest form of trans­porta­tion for chil­dren, “yet, when you look at the par­tic­u­late emis­sions from tailpipes, buses are not the safest when it comes to health,” said Tim Shan­non, the di­rec­tor of trans­porta­tion for the Twin Rivers School Dis­trict in Sacra­mento, which op­er­ates 25 elec­tric school buses built by Lion Elec­tric in Canada, be­lieved to be the largest fleet in the coun­try.

The im­pact of pol­lu­tion on health has long been doc­u­mented, but two re­cent re­ports high­light the ef­fect of emis­sions on aca­demic per­for­mance as well. One study showed that stu­dents in schools that are “down­wind” from ma­jor high­ways score lower than those in up­wind schools, while an­other looked specif­i­cally at the decline in aca­demic per­for­mance, par­tic­u­larly in English, that cor­re­lates with time spent on a diesel bus.

Ad­di­tion­ally, elec­tric school buses have a unique po­ten­tial to help the power grid. Un­like those used in mass tran­sit, school buses sit idle for many hours per day, as well as dur­ing the sum­mer months when power us­age of­ten peaks. Dur­ing those down times, the bus bat­ter­ies are ca­pa­ble of send­ing stored elec­tric­ity back to the grid. This abil­ity – known as ve­hi­cle to grid, or V2G – can be used to help ease the load on the grid. “Not only can we con­trol when the buses charge, but the bat­ter­ies can store re­new­able en­ergy if there is ex­cess,” Webb ex­plained.

The power stored can also be drawn on in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions. “Dur­ing a cri­sis, we could use th­ese buses to be part of a mi­cro­grid to power emer­gency re­sponse cen­ters,” Webb said.

The elec­tric bus man­u­fac­tur­ers, in­clud­ing Blue Bird, based in Fort Val­ley, Ge­or­gia, which has sup­plied those used in the Con Edi­son trial, and Nav­is­tar, based in Lisle, Illi­nois, which hopes to ship its first mod­els this year, rec­og­nize that this is a po­ten­tially huge mar­ket.

Ap­prox­i­mately 26 mil­lion stu­dents ride on 485,000 school buses na­tion­wide, said Michael Martin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Pupil Trans­porta­tion. While elec­tric tran­sit buses have been in op­er­a­tion for years, the school bus mar­ket – which when ag­gre­gated com­prises the largest fleet na­tion­wide – has been slow to adapt.

The rea­son is largely eco­nomic: Elec­tric buses are more ex­pen­sive. For tran­sit buses, which may travel 50,000 miles per year, the sav­ings in fuel and main­te­nance make the tran­si­tion cost ef­fec­tive. School buses, in con­trast, on av­er­age can cover 12,000 miles per year, and, as a re­sult, it can take years to off­set the higher pur­chase price.


Paul Har­ri­son, who drives for the Twin Rivers School Dis­trict, plugs in his elec­tric school bus af­ter morn­ing pickup in Sacra­mento, Calif., on Dec. 18.

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