Back to School in an Electric Bus

Episode ID S2E08
August 24, 2022

In the next five years, EPA’s new Clean School Bus program will give communities $5 billion to replace diesel school buses. CoBank’s Teri Viswanath and Tamra Reynolds go to the head of the class with those already putting electric buses on the road: Albert Burleigh, executive director of EV sales at Blue Bird Corporation; Keith Dennis, president of the Beneficial Electrification League; and Chris Michalowski with Mountain Parks Electric in Colorado.


Teri Viswanath: It's back to school time. Backpacks, check. Notebooks, check. Electric school bus, check plus. Welcome to Power Plays. I'm Teri Viswanath, your host and lead economist for power, energy, and water at CoBank. I'm joined with my co-host and CoBank managing director, Tamra Reynolds. Hi Tamra.

Tamra Reynolds: Hey Teri. I'm excited about our back-to-school podcast covering electric school buses. This discussion is especially timely, given EPA’s newly minted Clean School Bus program. It will provide communities with $5 billion over the next five years to replace diesel school buses with a cleaner alternative, namely electric school buses.

Teri: That's right, but to really get the low down on electric school buses, we reached out to the electrification honor roll. That is Albert Burleigh, executive director of EV sales at Blue Bird Corporation. A recognized American school bus manufacturer. Keith Dennis, formerly from NRECA and now the president of the Beneficial Electrification League. And Chris Michalowski with Mountain Parks Electric here in Colorado.

Tamra: We jump into this podcast by speaking with our electric bus manufacturer. Here's our conversation with Albert. Good morning. We're joined with Albert Burleigh with Blue Bird Corporation this morning. How are you, Albert?

Albert Burleigh: Doing great. Thank you.

Tamra: Well, we're really pleased to talk with you about what's going on at Blue Bird on the electric bus side. Can you give us some background about the company and maybe talk a little bit about some of the bus offerings that you guys have?

Albert: If you're not familiar with Blue Bird, I'll give you a quick background. We're a school bus manufacturer. We've been building school buses now since 1927, so we are celebrating 95 years of building safe and reliable transportation for the school bus industry this year. That's something very exciting to us. We've been doing this a long time.

We've built over 500,000 school buses since we've been in business and of those we have about 180,000 of them still in operation today.

Talking about electric, we actually first introduced an all-electric school bus back in 1994, which surprises a lot of people to hear that we offered an electric school bus over 25 years ago. Now the technology was much different back then. We had what they call lead-acid batteries. They were heavy. They had very limited range. Took a really long time to charge them. At the time the technology wasn't a great fit for school transportation and so we offered that product for about three years under a limited production run, and then we decided to shelve it. It just wasn't ready for school bus applications.

Until we got back into the all-electric business back in 2018 when we started producing electric buses again. Since that time over the four years, we've taken orders for about 1,200 electric school buses, about 650 of those are currently delivered to customers and transporting students to and from school daily. We have them now in 31 different states and four Canadian provinces. Most people assume that electric school buses are only for California, and that is true to some degree because most of them do operate in that state, but it's really becoming more mainstream in several other markets as well, so it's neat to see electric buses operating in all different climates, all different terrains, and really working really well for customers in different parts of the country. Yes, that's a little bit about Blue Bird.

Teri: As I think about the school districts, and this has been a tough year, we've had a crisis just finding enough drivers, but there are schools that are considering electric school buses. What's in it for them? Why consider electric school buses?

Albert: The great thing about electric power and school buses, it's a great fit for each other. If you think about school buses and the duty cycle, they operate a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon. They're idle mid-day and generally at night and mostly during the summer months as well. This really is a perfect fit for electric power because it requires overnight charging and, in some situations, charging midday between school bus routes, and schools recognize that this application works great for the daily school bus route needs.

There's a lot of benefits as well that attract school districts to electric power and really why it's accelerating adoption today. First and foremost are zero emissions and all the health benefits it offers for students as well as the environmental and health benefits for the communities where they operate in. Second, quiet operation. These things are very quiet. We tell people it's like driving a really big golf cart. That's the sensation. Doesn't make any noise and that really has reduced the noise pollution for neighborhoods where they operate and also the quiet operation for the bus drivers and the students.

Bus drivers have noted that it really improves the behavior of the students because the students are no longer shouting over the loud noise of the diesel engine. There's other benefits such as the value proposition. There's certainly the benefits of lower cost of operation, lower total cost of ownership for these school districts and that's really in the reduced maintenance cost. Also, you think about electricity rates versus diesel prices, and so there's big savings for the school districts when you think in terms of its operational costs. Diesel engines, if most people aren't familiar with them, are very complex. They're very costly to maintain. You have all these emission control devices on there now that are required to make them clean enough for the EPA to allow them to run. They also have a multitude of fluids and filters that require frequent maintenance as well and electric buses have none of that. As a matter of fact, the battery and the motor, which are the major components on electric buses require zero maintenance over the life of the vehicle.

Not to mention that our EV buses don't even have a transmission, which is another costly component to maintain. We're hearing from customers that actually are operating today, the cost per mile for an electric school bus is about 11 cents to 17 cents per mile, depending on electricity rates and that compares to diesel buses that cost about 50 cents to 80 cents per mile to operate, so really big savings as well that they can experience over life of the bus.

Tamra: I'm really curious Albert, how do you guys go about educating school districts and maybe utilities in working together on understanding what it takes to purchase and maintain and operate an electric school bus?

Albert: What we do when a customer explores electric buses is the first for me to do is say, "Contact your local utility." It's important that they investigate what's required at their local facility if they want to operate electric school buses. For example, do they have enough power coming into their facility to handle the infrastructure? At what point will any power upgrades be required? What will that cost? Are there any programs available through the utility assist to assist with those costs, which in many cases there are? We find that utilities are actually a great resource for the school districts to understand the charging side and it's really important that we get involved with them early in the process.

Tamra: Albert one thing that makes me curious is the amount of attention we're seeing around the EPA grant program and Clean Bus Program. I'm curious what are you guys seeing or planning for in terms of pickup and purchases or orders?

Albert: We think it's going to have a very big impact on adoption of electric school buses because the EPA is making it so easy for customers to apply. The program opened end of April. It'll be opened through August 19th. The way the program works, if customers apply, they'll know in October this year if they've been awarded or not. Then within probably 30 or 60 days, they'll be ordering buses. We're are looking for a pretty busy year on electric buses in 2023.

Teri: That's really exciting. Let's talk a little bit about V2G applications.

Albert: At Blue Bird, we are very excited about vehicle-to-grid or V2G and what this can offer for school districts. What V2G provides is the opportunity for school districts to earn revenue by selling stored energy and the bus batteries back to the grid when it's needed. At Blue Bird, all of our electric school bus offerings are Vehicle-to-grid capable. We talked about the total cost of ownership earlier and this will be another way to make the value proposition even stronger.

We have about five schools currently with V2G buses in operation and Durango School District in Colorado was one of the very first and La Plata Electric was very instrumental in making this pilot happen. They actually provided the funding for the charging infrastructure and also funded a portion of the school bus cost as well.

Teri: I think we're really excited to hear what you're doing over there at Blue Bird. Great partnering with our electric co-ops, with our school districts. We just want to thank you for joining the program and absolutely giving some insights on what's happening.

Albert: Great. Well, thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.

Tamra Reynolds: Teri, in the last four years Blue Bird has taken orders for about 1,200 electric school buses. In a single year, the EPA grant program could result in somewhere between 1,200 and 1,400 new bus orders for the 2023-2024 school year.

Teri Viswanath: I'm not particularly surprised by the overwhelming response to the EPA Clean School Bus program, or the fact that school districts are opting for zero-emitting options.

Tamra: Let's understand why zero rather than low-emitting buses are making the grade for the EPA program. We'll explore that topic at length with our next guest Keith Dennis the president of the Beneficial Electrification League. Here's what Keith had to say.

We're joined with Keith Dennis president of the Beneficial Electrification League. Good morning, Keith.

Keith Dennis: Good morning.

Tamra: Keith, give us a little bit of background on the Beneficial Electrification League.

Keith: Sure. Our mission is to increase the understanding of the benefits of electrification. We were started in 2018 formally although our work has gone back nearly a decade. I worked at the NRECA for about a decade and we have just over time seen that there was a need to talk about the benefits of electrification.

Teri: Today's program is our back-to-school program on school buses. I want to know a little bit more about how your nonprofit is raising awareness about electric transport and in particular those electric buses.

Keith: Sure, the electric school buses are essentially a mobile billboard for beneficial electrification and all the reasons why electricity is beneficial. These buses have great performance, they're quiet, they don't vibrate and they don't put out local emissions, and they reduce carbon dioxide emissions and also save money on gas. Kids love them. Schools love them. We interact with all of the bus manufacturers and the federal government to really distill down what it takes to have a successful program at implementing electric school buses in territories. We especially focus on rural territories and rural electric co-ops.

Teri: We're living through an important moment. The time for electric school buses is now. I think with a Beneficial Electrification League connecting the dots with our rural communities, that's helpful.

Keith: At this moment, schools can get basically free school buses. If you can get a free bus and an average school bus would cost $150,000. You actually are saving your school district $150,000 that then you can use on school supplies and other things related to education that every school's looking to do.

This law was signed in November 2021 so not that long ago. We went out to the co-op market and asked would cooperatives be interested in helping school districts learn about this program. Within a month we had coverage from over 350 cooperatives who were willing to proactively say, "Yes, we would like to help   this program be a success." Cooperatives have been very supportive.

School districts are a little bit all over the map. Some of them have unfortunately not even really heard of the program since it's so new. Just getting the information to them is incredibly important. We at the Beneficial Electrification League have talked to hundreds of school districts, hundreds of co-ops, and applications are coming as a result of this.

Teri: In terms of that beneficial electrification part in school buses, it seems like it's ripe for an application for vehicle-to-grid support. What are your thoughts there?

Keith: Yes. Clearly, there is a potential application for vehicle-to-grid.   These are fairly big batteries. We do have co-ops who are thinking about buses and hearing about capacity constraints in markets and looking at parking lots full of buses during their peak time and just connecting the dots and saying, "If these were electric school buses, we could be saving money on our demand charges right now." I would say that is probably a step or two down the road and it's things people are thinking about, but it's also one of those chicken or the egg things. You can't have vehicle-to-grid with buses unless you have the buses. Getting the buses is priority number one, and having a good experience with the buses is priority number one. The schools have to adopt these buses, take the kids to school, see these as a reliable technology, and then move into the vehicle-to-grid.

Teri: It's a prioritization. Let's make sure we apply the buses for the use  of there, which is getting our kids on clean transport and secondarily we'll figure out how to monetize that investment through maybe connecting that to the communities into the grid.

Keith: Absolutely, since these buses are significantly more expensive,   finding other value streams will be important to the next step. Then also the EPA program is a $5 billion five-year program. This part that we're talking about that is a rebate program to kick this off is just the first phase. Over the next five years, this will transition into a grant program and a rebate program hybrid, but people will get more points towards their grant applications if they do more creative things like vehicle-to-grid.

Tamra: That's great. Is there anything that we missed that you think would be valuable to touch on, or explain in more detail about stuff you guys are working on, or just the programs in general that are out there right now?

Keith: I would just point out that this school bus opportunity is sort of unique.   A lot of times when people think of grant programs and working with the federal government, they have their own experiences that indicate this would be a difficult thing to do. Really, this is one of the easiest programs that I've ever seen. The application is very simple. People can apply for these buses and if it doesn't work out later, there's no penalty. These buses aren't going to be delivered until probably about a year from now. It's called a rebate program, but the money comes to schools upfront, so they don't have to come up with the money and then get reimbursed. There's basically all these things pointing to a very easy federal program that is supporting these buses. I would just encourage folks that are thinking this will be too difficult on the paperwork side to be assured that this one actually is not difficult on the paperwork side. It's more about whether or not a bus is a fit for the school, and that should be really the big question here.

Teri: I think that's a really good point, so really appreciate you joining us on this program today. Keith, I'm excited to see the work you're doing with Beneficial Electrification League.

Keith: Thank you so much for having me. Really appreciate it.

Teri Viswanath: Tamra, the Clean Bus Program just rolled out last November and when Keith reached out to see if electric co-ops would be interested in helping their school districts learn about this program, well, the response was overwhelming with 350 co-ops signing up immediately.

Tamra Reynolds: No surprise there. Our next guest story really highlights how our cops are working closely with their school districts. Here's our discussion with Chris Michalowski.

Good morning, we're joined by Chris Michalowski, with Mountain Parks Electric up in Granby, Colorado. Hey, Chris.

Chris Michalowski: Hello.

Tamra: Let's talk a little bit about the school bus that you guys worked on with West Grand School District that was put into operation last year.

Chris: This was definitely not on West Grand School District's radar.   They're a pretty small rural district, they have a total of 400 students. When we saw that the state of Colorado had a pretty generous grant, we had a meeting internally to see, "Okay, is this something that we could contribute to as well?" Essentially, we were able to offer the school district the electric bus at no cost.

We brought this opportunity to them. We did a lot of hand-holding on the technical side as well. Because at the time, there wasn't a single electric school bus in the state of Colorado, so this is really uncharted territory.

Teri: That's amazing and let's stick with the idea of being in Colorado. The terrain, the weather. How did these factor into the evaluation of whether or not an electric school bus would work and whether the community would accept this new form of transportation for the kids?

Chris: The school district sits at about 7,700 feet above sea level, so it's high altitude. It's a cold climate. One of the neighboring communities, their nickname for the town is "The icebox of America", so days where it's negative 20 are not uncommon. There was definitely a lot of discussion around the HVAC system. We had to go and figure out the BTU capability of the heating system. We had a school board member ask, "If this bus breaks down on the side of the road, how many hours can the heater run off just the battery before we get someone else there to help the kids out?"

It's a very cold climate. It's also very mountainous. We serve several ski resorts in our territory. In fact, the bus performed so well the school district, they put it on their most mountainous route. It goes up, it's called Gore Pass, so the extra torque that's available, it just performs better so they kind of threw at the most challenging route they have.

Tamra: That's really a cool story there, Chris. Give us some background on what's happened since the school got the bus last year. They've had it in their fleet.

Chris: I would say our school district, they were definitely on board and willing to partner with us, but they were still somewhat skeptical even when they got the bus, but after a week or two, they were fully on board with it. I mean, it truly is an upgrade in performance, as well as cost savings and things like that, and those bus drivers understand that immediately after they drive it. It's just a much quieter experience for them, as well as the students.

When those buses are lined up in front of the school every day, it's noticeable that there's no exhaust emitting from that bus. At this point, they're big believers in it.   The EPA Clean School Bus rebate is available now until August 19th and they plan on applying for two more buses. That would hopefully give them three buses out of a total fleet of seven.

One of the challenges, and I don't know if this is really a challenge, it's more of the reality, is that electric school buses at this point are designed as route buses. You're going to put this on a morning route, an afternoon route, they're going to work well for you. These are not buses that you're going to drive across the state to the playoff football game. I think schools and transportation directors need to understand that these are route buses, that's what they're designed for.

Teri: Let's talk a little bit about the financial comparison.

Chris: Yes, I mean, there's still a significant gap. The school district's school bus was about $400,000 once you figured in the charging infrastructure. A comparable diesel school bus that they normally purchase is about $150,000, so it's a pretty significant gap. At this point school districts that are financially able to purchase electric school buses, great for them to be able to do that, but it really does take some outside support to make it pencil for our school districts.

Tamra: Chris, you mentioned the EPA Clean Bus grant program and the application process that's ongoing right now. What are other school districts that you might be working with on similar projects?

Chris: We serve three school districts. Our other school district has applied for two buses through the rebate program. The third school district is so rural, that they actually don't even offer a route anymore. These kids are driving in on their farm truck. It's pretty exciting to see. It's kind of a domino effect. Once you get an electric school bus in a region, they're going to perform well, and all these transportation directors, they know each other, they talk to each other, they've seen each other in meetings and conferences, and the word gets out that they work well. We've kind of seen that with just the school districts we serve, as well as neighboring school districts. As far as our experience with this project, I've spoken to electric co-ops in school districts from Maine to Oregon. It's been pretty cool to see this tiny little rural school in Colorado have such a big impact and being able to lead the way.

Teri: Yes, first school in the state. That's pretty amazing. Going back to that experience, I'd like to hear, you had mentioned that one thing that's very noticeable is that you're not seeing a queue of kids waiting for the bus and breathing in the diesel emissions, but about the experience the school has had that you think is sort of positive from this electric school bus, would love to hear those insights.

Chris: Yes, so it's definitely driver, I guess, just comfort and awareness. If you're not having to yell at the kids over the noise of an engine, it's just a better environment for everyone else. They're definitely saving on their fuel costs. We've got a year's worth of data now. I think the bus drove about 9,800 miles during the school year that we just finished. They're saving about $2,600 annually, so when you pencil that out over the lifetime of the school bus, it's probably around $40,000.

Tamra: Quick question on your investment or your side of the process with charging stations or whatever. How did that dynamic work between you guys and the school district?

Chris: I think it's important to remember in these rural school districts, these electric school bus chargers, they might be the first electric charger in that community. Especially from a co-op’s perspective, I think it's important to go above and beyond and really provide some support there. We didn't install the charger ourselves, but we connected a local electrician with the school district and worked on the service needs for that. I think as co-ops, that's a service that we should be able to provide to our school districts.

Teri: Hey, that's great, Chris. Really, great having you in the program. Thank you.

Chris: Yes, thank you.

Tamra: A deep community commitment and a cleaner ride to school. I really applaud the team at Mountain Parks Electric, their board members, and their schools were going the distance to implement new technology.

Teri: Well, that wraps up our back-to-school program. Tune in next month when Tamra and Doran Dennis explore how broadband is getting rolled out in rural America, and the important role that electric cooperatives are playing in getting our communities online and connected. Please join us then.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this podcast is not intended to be investment, tax, or legal advice and should not be relied upon by listeners for such purposes. The information contained in this podcast has been compiled from what CoBank regards as reliable sources. However, CoBank does not make any representation or warranty regarding the content, and disclaims any responsibility for the information, materials, third-party opinions, and data included in this podcast. In no event will CoBank be liable for any decision made or actions taken by any person or persons relying on the information contained in this podcast.

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