Webinar Answers Common Questions on Electric School Buses

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A-Z Bus Sales

School bus dealer A-Z Bus Sales, manufacturer Blue Bird Corp., and electric drivetrain provider ADOMANI, Inc. answered some common questions on all-electric school bus acquisition and usage in California, while four local air quality management districts shared how they could assist with grant funds.

Range

Rick Eckert, ADOMANI’s chief operating officer, first clarified that electric school buses are best used for regular routes, instead of longer field and activity trip routes. Air conditioning, heating and driving in hilly terrain all predictably affect range, the same way that they affect fuel usage in all other buses, he added.

Additionally, he advise that heating should be run off electric systems, because diesel injector systems are prohibited in California. Tim Shannon, who serves as transportation director for the Twin Rivers Unified School District located just outside Sacramento, said he heats his electric buses as they charge to save time and avoid draining the battery before they even start on their routes.

“You can actually cool and heat the bus while it is still plugged in at the shop, so you’re not exactly reducing your range if you’re doing that prior to the route start,” added Jenna Van Harpen, director of alternative fuels for Blue Bird.

Heating uses more power than air conditioning does, but Shannon said he still gets a range of 96 miles per day. He termed his 16 electric buses “pretty efficient” for running all but three of his 300 routes and added that stop-and-start traffic helps with regenerative braking.

At this writing, Shannon’s district had the nation’s largest fleet of all-electric school buses in use.

Batteries

Eckert said the new Blue Bird All American and Vision electric school bus models are powered by Xalt Energy batteries, which are certified to withstand 3,000 full recharge cycles. Mid-day recharges between routes do not count against this number, he explained, adding that a full cycle is measured from a zero-level battery to full charge. Based on a count of about 190 school days per year, he said it would take about 10 years before the life of the original batteries begin to degrade, though customers could still expect the buses to operate at about 70 to 80 percent efficiency.

“It is recommended that (the buses) are plugged at all times, anyway. It won’t overcharge because the system won’t allow it to,” Eckert confirmed.

He added that ADOMANI has seen battery prices come down due to cpmpetition in the marketplace and improvements to battery chemistry.

Brandon Bluhm, director of sales for A-Z Bus Sales who moderated Thursday’s webinar, pointed out the precedence of California Air Resources Board aiding districts with grant money to offset the cost of in-vehicle CNG tanks that must be replaced after so many years, which at least provides the potential for CARB to also assist districts with upgrading electric bus batteries.

“We need to start working with our local air districts CARB to set that idea in motion,” Shannon recommended. Bluhm also encouraged school districts to make their voices heard.

Infrastructure

Many student transporters wonder about are the costs for installing vehicle charging infrastructure and what a successful implementation looks like. Bluhm said installing a charging station and related equipment runs from $600 to about $3,000, a range Eckert agreed with. He confirmed the ratio of one vehicle per charger and advised considering the overall plan for school bus replacement to allow districts to estimate for total costs, since infrastructure costs are directly related to the size of an electric fleet.

Related: ACT EXPO Panel Advises on School Bus Replacement

Blue Bird electric school buses run on the common Level Two chargers used by many other electric vehicles, Eckert noted.

Shannon also said Twin Rivers partners with a local utility company and he recommended other districts do the same. He underscored careful consideration long-term planning in an effort to “build for the future.”

Training and Warranties

Training opportunities and warranties are other areas of concern, due to the novelty of the technology. Carol Dietrich, director of technical communications and training for Blue Bird, said that the manufacturer offers a video series for training purposes and is working on another video for drivers to teach the best driving habits for maximum battery efficiency and range. Dealers like A-Z Bus can help technicians get on-site training from the Blue Bird Academy, which will also be presenting a training course during the STN EXPO this July.

Bluhm stressed that dealers should be assisting districts who purchase electric buses, not just sell them the vehicle and then leave them without support. Warranties are also handled through the dealer, and in California “there’s a lot of resources on the ground to see these buses are running smoothly,” he added.

Costs and Funding

Electric buses are proven to reduce operating costs in the real world, as Shannon said he has seen an 82 percent reduction in fuel costs and expects a 75 percent reduction in maintenance costs this year. The STN Fuel Calculator helps estimate fuel savings that can be achieved by switching to electric or any of the available fuels for school buses.

Presenters also assured listeners that there are many funding and grant opportunities available.

Related: Webinar Shares Updates, Strategies to Secure VW Funding

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the amount of grant funds that are coming for school districts specifically,” Bluhm declared. “So we encourage everyone to do your research, understand the programs that are available and prepare your district so that you can take advantage of these opportunities.”

A particularly useful source is the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Voucher Incentive Program (HVIP), since the dealer does the paperwork and provides vouchers—$220,000 for Type C or D buses, and $90,000 for Type A—to districts to offset the incremental price of electric. More funds are available if the district is located in a disadvantaged community or is buying one of its first three electric buses.

A perk of HVIP, Bluhm added, is that older schools buses aren’t required to be scrapped to receive funding, unlike other programs like the Carl Moyer program, California Energy Commission (CEC) Prop 39 funds and Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Funds.

Related: Calif. School Districts Take Advantage of Alt-Fuel Funding

Questions

Bluhm revealed in an answer to an attendee query that most grants have excluded private contractors, but that more are being opened to them. These are on a case-by-case, and air quality districts can help with accessing those.

In responding to a listener question on battery wattage, Eckert said that the battery used by Blue Bird offers a total of 160 kWh. With 19.2 kW coming back into the bus per hour during charging, the recommended time for a full charge is roughly eight hours. Batteries also can’t be fully charged or fully run out to help preserve life.

A question came in on plans to strengthen the drivetrain to be able to use a higher torque motor. Hinton Harrison, Blue Bird’s engineering liaison supervisor, said the manufacturer picked an electric drivetrain equivalent to a mid-powered diesel engine, or a 600-650 lb-ft torque engine. Components are available to make the engine higher-powered, if customers request that.

Air District Assistance

Tina McRee from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District said $60 million is available through the Carl Moyer Program and the Community Air Protection program that targets disadvantaged or high-pollution areas. Buses, charging equipment and infrastructure are eligible, and more funding is available for projects that will reduce more pollution. She urged school districts to “act quickly because the 2018 funding is competitive” and make sure their applications are complete.

Related: Rural School Districts Benefit from California Cap-and-Trade Funds

Sacramento-area districts can apply for funding for ZEVs from the SECAT program run by the Sacramento Air Quality Management District. Air Quality Engineer Heather Taylor shared that the $100,000 pot will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis and that proof of use will be required for a minimum of five years to ensure operation of the new vehicles. 

Aaron Tarango with the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District said that the SJAQMD’s long-time program is good for diesel or electric buses, and can also be stacked with other programs like HVIP. An upcoming infrastructure program will use cap-and-trade funds, “which are basically Carl Moyer funds targeted to disadvantaged communities.”

Related: Calif. Districts Receive $35M for Alt-Fuel School Buses

The South Coast Air Quality Management District serves areas that include about half the population in the state, said Technology Implementation Manager Vicky White. A new program that started last June stacked SCAQMD and HVIP funding to fund 33 electric school buses and related infrastructure. These buses will roll out this September.

Jennifer Masterson of the California Energy Commission’s fuels and transportation division shared about a funding program allocating $75 million to replace diesel buses, cover infrastructure costs and provide training. Applications will be accepted starting Friday and are due by September 20.

Next Steps

“Now is the time to begin these conversations, if you haven’t done so already,” said Bluhm.

Interested parties, he said, should determine how much of their fleet they want to convert, look at differences in electric school bus offerings, get quotes from their dealer, consult with the local air quality management district to see which funding opportunities are available, determine which buses could be replaced, organize the paperwork that will be needed, and get infrastructure quotes.

“We’re very excited about the technology and the developments that are happening,” Bluhm concluded. “Know that there’s quite a bit of opportunity here for school districts to take advantage of.”