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Electric School Buses – Where Do They Perform Best?

With the increasing popularity of electric school buses across the United States and Canada, many districts wonder if electric school buses are right for their fleet. Still others discount electric school buses for their area based on misperceptions on electric buses’ performance in rough terrain, cold climates and remote locations.

“While electric school buses are fairly new, the interesting thing is that they are evolving at a rapid pace,” said Mark Childers, Powertrain and Technology Sales Manager at Thomas Built Buses. “It’s true that early models of electric school buses may have been better suited for certain areas, but with new battery enhancements, those restrictions no longer apply. We are seeing phenomenal electric school bus performance in all types of terrain, climate and route types.”

With routine and predictable routes, mid-day and evening charge times, school buses are perfectly suited for electric power. Along with their benefits to schools, electric school buses are also quickly becoming a jewel for utility providers who are eyeing the buses for electricity storage and possible vehicle-to-grid assets.  Electric school buses are particularly attractive because utility companies can use electricity stored on the bus to manage peak demand and build resiliency in their electrical grid.

So where are electric school buses the best fit?

“The good news is that electric school buses have proven performance in all types of terrain and weather, even mountainous terrain with cold temperatures,” continued Childers. “It is important to note that terrain, driving behavior, weather, etc. may have an impact on the range of a school bus’s battery, the same as with other fuel options. But electric school buses can reliably perform in any environment.”

Childers suggests that ultimately a successful electric school bus deployment comes down to planning and understanding the ecosystem around the electric bus. Thomas Built Buses has identified several elements of the electric school bus ecosystem that help to inform electric school bus purchases: bus specifications, route assessment, economic feasibility, financing, infrastructure development, maintenance/operations, fleet management and secondary life.  Each of these elements require advance planning and consulting with multiple stakeholders, which is why Thomas Built Bus has launched Electric Bus Authority as a resource to assist any school district considering electrifying their fleet.

At a very high level, Childers dives into some of these elements.

Range

Most new conventional school buses hitting the market today have a range of around 100 miles (give or take, depending on factors like terrain, driving behavior, bus weight). More specifically, Thomas Built Buses’ Saf-T-Liner® C2 Jouley™ electric bus currently has a range of up to 135 miles. For most districts, this range is more than enough for even the most rural of routes. Plus, newer batteries with advanced technologies are currently in development, which will provide extended range at a lower cost.

Charging time

When districts consider range, they also should consider how frequently the bus will require charging. With several electric buses in a fleet, districts may be able to rotate charging so that not all-electric buses are charging at one time and can use the same charger. Some buses that run longer routes can charge mid-day while others only charge in the evenings. But charge times will vary.

School buses that charge via alternating current level 2 (AC) power will likely partially charge in four to six hours and be fully charged in eight hours. Districts that utilize direct current (DC) charging infrastructure can charge their buses in a shorter amount of time – in as little as two to three hours. Thomas Built Buses is currently the only manufacturer to offer DC charging as standard on their product.

“The number of chargers and types of chargers in a bus yard will have an impact on how many buses can charge and for how long,” said Childers. “Working with the Electric Bus Authority team and planning in advance will help transportation directors determine what will work best for their fleet.”

Budget

It’s no surprise that today electric school buses cost more than their clean-diesel, propane, gasoline or CNG counterparts, but studies have found that with decreased fuel and maintenance costs, electric school buses actually end up costing a fleet less over the lifetime of the bus.

In fact, even with the higher purchase price, maintenance costs, power costs and battery replacement, an electric school bus could still save schools nearly $2,000 a year in fuel and $4,400 a year in maintenance costs, according to a study by the Clinton Global Initiative. The study found that electric buses make up for their higher purchase costs within 13 years of operation and end up saving more than $31,000 over the lifetime of the bus.

The even better news is that pricing for electric school buses will fall as battery technology and supplies improve with growing demand. Higher production volumes, along with a stable supply chain, will drive future vehicle prices lower, improving the overall lifetime costs.

Where to find funding

As electric becomes more popular, more and more funding options for electric school buses and infrastructure are becoming available. To help locate and apply for new funding, manufacturers like Thomas Built Buses are stepping up to help. For example, as part of their Electric Bus Authority program, Thomas Built Buses partners with customers to pinpoint funding through state incentives, vouchers, utility providers and private foundations that can help to offset the cost of procuring new electric school buses as well as infrastructure purchase and installation. The Electric Bus Authority team can also walk districts through new business models that make idle electric school buses available to utility companies as designated energy resources. In this type of model, the school bus has the potential to generate revenue for the school district and reduce the total lifetime cost of operation.

While short-term grants and funding opportunities are making electric school buses more feasible today, the savings can continue to grow as government funding and incentives continue to kick in, the cost of batteries continues to decline and possible revenue sources from utility companies begin to emerge.

In the end, the decision regarding whether an electric school bus is right for a fleet is based on a district’s specific needs, not on their geography, location or climate. To find out more, contact a local Thomas Built Buses dealer for more information or speak with someone at the Electric Bus Authority.

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