Mobility / Transport

Electric School Buses – A Complete Overview

Electric School Buses – A Complete Overview
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I was fortunate enough to act as a chaperone for one of my kids’ field trips not so long ago. Bouncing up and down on a bench seat with no seat belt and wanting to rip my ears off because the cacophony of children screaming really took me back. I remember riding the bus to school somewhat fondly. There was something fun about it. While my school bus experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, there is no doubt that school buses are not good for the environment. According to this blog on the Thomas Built Buses website, diesel burning- school buses emit substantial amounts of harmful carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NOx), particulate matter (PM) and hydrocarbons (NMHC) into the atmosphere. As with all transport, the future is all-electric. With that in mind, today we hope to provide a complete overview of electric school buses.

Are There Electric Buses?

Yes sir/ma’am there are and there are more of them in use than you might think! Electric buses are almost ubiquitous in many Asian and European countries. Of the approximately 100,000 electric buses sold every year, 95% are sold in China. Here in the United States, we have been a bit slow to make the switch from gas to electric with our buses, but that is changing rapidly. Major U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Dallas have fleets of electric buses that shuttle commuters around on a daily basis. Even small to mid-sized towns like Anaheim, CA and Frederick, MD (Go Keys!) have purchased electric buses for use in their public transportation fleets in recent years. As first reported by Cleantechnica, about 40% of U.S. transit agencies currently have electric vehicles in their fleets.

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“The trend for electrics is definitely moving up,” Jeff Hiott, Assistant Vice President of Technical Services and Innovation for the American Public Transportation Association was quoted as saying. “The transportation industry in general has a very sustainable agenda. What we’re seeing is agencies looking at ways to be more environmentally friendly, and battery-electric buses are a way to do that.” 

As far as electric school buses go, the first rolled off the assembly line in 2014. The lucky recipients of this delivery were the fine folks at Kings Canyon Unified School District in the San Joaquin Valley of California. The all-electric powertrain bus was built by Trans Tech Bus using a control system designed by Motiv Power Systems. Both companies are based in California. This vehicle was the first of it’s kind to fully pass all California Highway Patrol (CHP) certifications and inspections. This made it the first electric school bus to be approved for student transportation in the United States!

How Much Does a New Electric School Bus Cost?

So…here’s the kicker. They’re a bit more expensive than their gas-guzzling counterparts. According to this report by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), electric school buses cost about $230,000 on average. This is compared to school buses that run on diesel fuel which on average retail for roughly $110,000. Okay, electric school buses are more expensive and I realize that may be a turn-off for school administrators. Leaders often operate on a tight budget, and they absolutely need to get their students to school. What if I told you that electric school buses are actually money-savers when considering lifetime costs of the vehicle?

It’s absolutely true. Despite the initial up-cost of electric school buses over diesel, fuel and maintenance savings over the life of the vehicle comes to about $170,000. Buses typically last for between 12 and 16 years once in operation.  You heard it here first folks, it is actually much much cheaper to run a fleet of electric school buses than it is to maintain a fleet of diesel vehicles. This is because electricity is consistently cheaper than gas, and prices of electricity fluctuate much less. Electric vehicles also cost less to maintain since they contain less moving parts. This study conducted by the Clinton Global Initiative discovered that as much as $6,400 per year can be saved per electric bus, ($4,400 in maintenance and $2,000 in fuel). Seems like a no-brainer once you get past the up-front costs.

According to Matthew Casale, Director of the 21st Century Transportaion Campaign at PIRG:

“Diesel-powered buses often need a mid-life overhaul, which an electric bus should not need. It is possible that an electric bus would need a battery replacement at some point during its lifetime, but as far as I have seen, that hasn’t had to happen yet.”

How Far Can an Electric Bus Travel?

Like all modes of electric transportation, range for electric buses varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. As of today, electric buses with the most range can travel over 170 miles on a single charge. This range is dependent on external factors such as terrain and cold climate, as we mentioned here.  The electric bus manufactured by Blue Bird Buses gets about 120 miles on a single charge. Blue Bird is the second most popular bus manufacturer in the Untied States. The batteries in their buses can be charged in about 8 hours with a standard level 2 charging system. Using a fast charging system, the batteries can be charged in as little as 3 hours. Not too shabby!

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V2G Technology

As we noted previously, vehicle-to-grid (v2g) technology might be the game changer for fleet managers and owners. V2g technology communicates with the power grid and allows vehicles to “sell” energy back to the electric company PJM Interconnection, an electricity Regional Transmission Organization (RTO), is working on a program  that would use trucks and buses for v2g transfers while parked and unused overnight. If successful, this technology could mean millions in savings for companies and municipalities utilizing electric buses.

No matter what the catalyst for their proliferation, electric school buses are the future. If riding on an electric school bus won’t be the norm for my children, it certainly will be for my grandchildren. I am excited about that kind of future!

What do our readers think? How long will it take for electric school buses to overtake gas-powered buses in sales? Will v2g technology ever be viable? Please leave us a comment below and let us know.

Source | Images: Wikimedia Commons

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Neil Brooks
Neil Brooks is an electric vehicle owner and lover currently based in the greater Washington D.C. area. Neil is a fan of all things electric and may be the only person in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States to own both an electric leaf blower and an electric chainsaw. When he's not busy blogging about the latest on electric technology he enjoys grilling, rock climbing, and taking naps in his hammock.