Last week, Michigan’s Dearborn Public Schools announced that it has picked up its first electric school bus and up to 18 more could be on the way. Why should you care? Electric school buses are a fantastic application of today’s electric vehicle technology. Here’s a reminder of what makes them so good and the one big downside.
Two years ago, one of my first articles for the German lighting site was about how school buses were the perfect application of the EV technology that we have access to today. And almost exactly two years on, my opinion hasn’t changed. The life of a school bus is one that happens to be great for the strength and limitations of today’s electric vehicles. Thus, it’s awesome to see electric school buses gradually take off around America.
School Districts Sweep Up Electric Buses
According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), there are about 500,000 school buses in the United States. Of that fleet, 12,720 of them are what WRI calls “committed electric school buses.” WRI says that it considers a bus “committed” when a district has been awarded the funding to purchase it, has already purchased it, it’s been delivered, or it’s already in service. In addition to that 12,720, Midwest Transit Equipment and SEA Electric said that they will convert 10,000 buses to EV power over the next five years. However, WRI doesn’t count these in the committed school bus number. Further crunching those numbers, WRI says that those 12,720 committed electric buses represent two to three percent of the total number of school buses in America. And the number of commitments jumped 10-fold since August 2021.
This is to say that America is falling in love with the electric school bus, and as of June 2022, there were 767 of them on American roads. Now, Dearborn, Michigan is adding its own buses to the count.
On December 15, Dearborn Public Schools unveiled the first of what will hopefully be many electric school buses. The district took delivery of its first Blue Bird All American RE Electric, a transit-style school bus that would normally house a Cummins diesel or CNG engine in its rear. Instead of internal combustion, these buses have a Cummins (formerly Efficient Drivetrains) PowerDrive 7000 drive system. This consists of a 315 HP electric motor.
That’s paired with two banks of seven Li-ION NMC/G batteries adding up to 155 kWh total. Depending on the drive cycle, driver behavior, and HVAC usage, Blue Bird says that this bus will go up to 120 miles between charges. These buses can be topped off in eight hours on a Level II charger, or in 3 hours on a fast-charging system.
The batteries, which you can see below, are rated for 3,000 charge cycles and are expected to last eight to ten years.
Those numbers seem low, and if they were stats for a car you might even hear someone say “range anxiety.” But for big school buses, this is just fine.
A 2013 National Renewable Energy Laboratory study examining 1,500 school bus driver shifts found that on average, school buses traveled 31.73 miles per shift, or on average 73.46 miles per day. This bus could handle that on a single charge, but realistically, a lot of electric school buses will charge between shifts. It’s even better when you consider that buses tend to follow set paths, can regenerate with a lot of stops, and usually end right back in the same place when their job is done. The average bus should handle the job without running out of juice, and the district should be able to feel confident in their buses doing the job for years.
And Blue Bird isn’t even offering the most miles on a single charge in a large bus, as the Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley can go up to 138 miles on a charge and Navistar International’s IC Bus CE Series Electric goes up to 200 miles on a single charge. The International does it with a beefy 315-kWh battery and the Thomas has a 226 kWh battery onboard. Lion Electric (formerly known as Autobus Lion), a newer player in the bus world, has school buses that can go as far as 155 miles with a battery as large as 210 kWh.
Good For Kids, Too
Electric buses aren’t just perfect because their duty cycle fits neatly with today’s tech, they’re also better for everyone who has to be around them. Sure, there are weirdos like me who can’t get up in the morning unless there’s a Navistar DT466 firing up nearby, but a lot of people (maybe even most) don’t want to sniff diesel or gasoline fumes. And they don’t want their kids to do the same. WRI notes that 20 million children ride a bus to school, and 92 percent to 95 percent of those buses run on diesel.
There is no known safe level of diesel or gasoline exhaust exposure for the developing immune system of a child. WRI goes on to note that exposure to exhaust fumes can impact respiratory health as well as cognitive development. Even worse, students from low-income families are more likely to ride the bus, and thus are more likely to get exposed.
This is to say that electric buses aren’t just awesome on a technical level, but it’s good for your kids, too. Another added benefit is that there is no loud engine clattering away, making the bus ride a bit quieter.
Alright, so outside of cases where a bus needs to go long distances, EV school buses make so much sense. They do the job of getting kids safely to and from school without the noise, without the emissions, and while still running the same routes.
Unfortunately, there is a catch. According to the United States Department of Energy, an electric school bus costs up to $400,000. And according to a CNBC report, some districts are paying as high as $500,000 per bus. As the report notes, that can be as much as two or three times as expensive as buses powered by diesel or gasoline. Yep, you can still find buses running gasoline engines, and they’re touted as an option for budget-minded districts.
This is a potential problem for districts that don’t have huge budgets for bus fleets, but Dearborn’s unveiling explains how some districts are electrifying their fleets:
The first bus was funded with a mix of federal grant dollars and district funds. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provided an initial grant of $300,000 through the American Rescue Plan Electric School Bus Rebate program. The program is intended to replace older diesel school buses with zero-emissions electric buses. The district will also contribute about $100,000 to the final cost of the first bus, making the total bill to Dearborn Schools similar to what a traditional school bus costs to buy.
Last month, the EPA announced the district would be eligible for $7.1 million in funding to buy up to 18 additional electric school buses through the 2022 Clean School Bus Rebate program. The EPA classified Dearborn Public Schools as a priority district since about 70 percent of the families in the district are low-income.
The grant is part of $1 billion the EPA is providing across the country this year to support the purchase of more electric school buses. The receiving districts can get up to $375,000 per bus purchased plus $20,000 to add charging infrastructure to support the buses. The funding is intended to help districts replace older, polluting buses with new zero-emission vehicles. Dearborn needs upgrades to its Transportation facilities to be able to charge the new electric buses.
States also have their own energy programs. For example, there’s a Thomas Saf-T-Liner C2 Jouley running for Tok Transportation in Tok Alaska, serving the Alaska Gateway School District. That bus is subjected to a torture test during normal operation as it has to get kids to school, even when outside temperatures are a -40 degree deep freeze. Yet, it does its job well considering its working conditions. That bus was $400,000, but an Alaska Energy Authority program reduced Tok’s cost to just $50,000. Illinois is using some of its Dieselgate money for electric buses.
In addition to these potential ways to pay for the buses, the bus manufacturers themselves tout lower running costs as a major benefit. Internal combustion engines require care like fluid and filter changes, maintenance to emissions equipment, and replacement of items like spark plugs, glow plugs, or coils. Of course, electric powertrains don’t have to worry about any of that. Thus, these buses are touted as being able to save a district money in the long run over internal combustion.
Currently, Dearborn has a fleet of 70 buses. Over time, it hopes to electrify more buses in this fleet to not just reduce emissions, but improve health and maybe save a little money on the way. For that, I hope Dearborn and every other school getting into EV buses are successful. My memories are filled with the sounds of GMC V8-powered conventional buses and those clackety International diesels. Perhaps the kids of the future won’t hear those sounds, but they won’t be sniffing those fumes like I did, either.
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