Can Electric School Buses Make the Grade?

March 22, 2019 by Susan Carpenter, @CarpenterWheels

Unlike their battery-powered cousins in the public transit sector, electric school buses have been slow to see widespread adoption for daily use.

There are pilot programs in school districts across the country – California is a major testbed, as are Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York. But it takes a long time for an electric school bus to recoup its price premium – thanks largely to low usage patterns.

An electric school bus can cost from $200,000 to $400,000, while conventional diesel school buses run $100,000 to $150,000.

LOWER FUEL, MAINTENANCE COSTS

Fuel and maintenance costs for an e-bus are much lower than for diesel buses, but school buses run in the morning and the afternoon, “and basically that’s it,” said Judah Aber of EB Start, an electric bus consulting group in White Plains, N.Y.

That’s an average of 66 miles per day, about half as much as a transit bus, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

The large amount of time a school bus sits parked increases the time it takes to earn back the cost difference through fuel and maintenance savings. But that parked time may turn into a selling point, thanks to vehicle-to-grid power programs being tested in California and elsewhere.

Right now, though, investments in electric school buses haven’t been as robust as investment in electric transit buses, which are in demand around the globe.

NORTH AMERICAN PHENOMENON

School buses are pretty much a North American phenomenon, with students in other countries using public transit instead, said Scott Shepard, senior analyst for Navigant Research.

So, bus manufacturers’ investments in production capacity “are more likely paid back with transit buses,” Shepard said. Most school systems don’t have sufficient capital to finance the high initial costs of electric bus purchases and charging infrastructure development, he said.

In the U.S., the school bus market is about 33,000 to 35,000 vehicles per year – about six times more than transit buses. Diesels dominate, but many manufacturers see the potential for electric buses to capture a healthy slice of the school market. Eventually.

THE PLAYERS

Electric school bus sales only started to pick up speed in 2017, when California started creating demand. The state’s Air Quality Management District awarded $8.8 million for electric school bus purchases that year, providing $536,000 grants to 15 different school districts. That allowed each district to purchase two electric buses and install charging infrastructure.

In the years since, other pools of money to help subsidize electric school bus purchases have become available, including funds from a $2.7 billion Volkswagen diesel-emissions settlement.

“School buses are following the same trends as transit buses, but they’re delayed by four to five years,” said Gary Horvat, vice president of eMobility for Navistar International Corp., one of a small handful of companies making electric school buses.

Navistar’s IC Bus brand makes school buses including its upcoming battery-electric ChargE. The production version will be ready next year, Horvat told Trucks.com.

Thomas Built Buses, a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America, will begin small-batch production of its Saf-T-Liner eC2 electric school bus later this year. Capable of carrying 81 students, the Saf-T-Liner eC2 uses a 155 kilowatt-hour battery that allows it to operate for up to 120 miles.

Lion Electric Co., based in Quebec, Canada, makes the eLion electric school bus. It seats 72 passengers and can travel 100 miles per charge.

The Sacramento, Calif., region, which operates the nation’s largest zero-emissions electric school bus fleet, has several eLion buses serving primarily communities with high air pollution readings in three separate school districts.

SELLING e-BUS power

One way school districts might make electric buses more affordable is through power sales to electric utilities when the buses aren’t in use.

Earlier this year, the California Energy Commission released $75 million in funding for a program for “V2G” – vehicle-to-grid – electric school buses that are able to feed electricity from their batteries into to the power grid when they are not in use.

“The fascination with school buses is that they are what I believe is the killer app” for vehicle-to-grid power because they have large, resilient batteries and are parked most of the time, said Ted Smith, chief operations officer for Nuvve, a San Diego, Calif.-based V2G software and service company.

Nuvve is operating a two-bus V2G pilot program in cooperation with the Torrance Unified School District and Blue Bird Corp., the nation’s largest school bus maker.

The Blue Bird electric buses have 115-kWh battery packs, and Nuvve is preparing a second pilot in Rialto, Calif., using buses with 200 kWh batteries.

A kilowatt, or 1,000 watts, is enough electricity to keep an efficient modern refrigerator-freezer running for three to four hours.

EARNING THEIR KEEP

In addition to helping utility companies offset peak demand, V2G systems can help school districts pay for the buses, which can earn back thousands of dollars per year per vehicle by selling excess electricity.

Con Edison has run a similar V2G program in White Plains, N.Y., since September 2018.

“We always thought there’s an opportunity to stack some value on a school bus because our electric system is a summertime peak system, and school buses sit idle during the summer,” said John Shipman, the utility company’s department manager of demonstration projects.

“It seemed like a perfect marriage, where you could pull some value out of batteries that are sitting idle and provide an additional potential revenue stream for a fleet operator,” Shipman told Trucks.com.

It’s a win-win situation, Nuvee’s Smith said, because every dollar of a school district’s budget that doesn’t have to be spent on school buses can go into education programs for the students.

Ryan ZumMallen May 17, 2018
The fully electric IC Bus chargE, a product of the relationship between Navistar and Volkswagen, leads a wave of approaching electric school buses.

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