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Pine-Richland Schools Pilot Electric Buses to Test Viability

A school district in Pennsylvania has added three electric-powered vehicles to its bus fleet to gather information about whether they're a viable alternative to vehicles that use fossil fuels.

A line of yellow electric school buses parked and plugged into charge.
(Lion Electric)
(TNS) — With an evergreen tree as part of the district's name and school colors to match, it only stands to reason that Pine-Richland's students and staff have an affinity for finding ways to preserve the natural beauty of the environment.

The Pine-Richland School District recently began the testing phase of a pilot program to study the feasibility of transporting students on battery-powered buses instead of vehicles that run on fossil fuels.

The district's bus provider, Student Transportation of America, has added three electric-powered vehicles to the district's fleet that were purchased with a grant from the Driving PA Forward-Truck and Bus Fleet Program, a grant and rebate program that aims to cut air pollution in the state by replacing high-polluting engines with vehicles that run on cleaner alternatives such as electric, compressed natural gas, propane and clean diesel.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, emissions from old-technology vehicles in Pennsylvania account for 50.2 percent of the ground level ozone and fine particulate matter harmful to the environment and human health.

STA announced last May that Pine-Richland would be participating in the pilot program to gather information about whether electric buses are a viable alternative to vehicles that use fossil fuels.

On April 26 the company hosted driver, technician and first responder training for the new buses, which were put into service on May 24.

"The drivers are excited about some of the advantages of electric buses, including faster heating of the bus itself," said district spokeswoman Erin Hassinger. "Since the engine does not need to heat first, the interior of the bus will start heating within a minute of turning it on. Additionally, the bus does not need to be fully turned on to heat, helping to conserve energy."

In addition to eliminating noxious fumes, electric buses are so quiet that an artificial humming noise was added for safety so students can hear the vehicle approaching as its speed drops below 20 mph, according to district officials.

The buses are still equipped with air brakes that produce a distinctive "sneeze" when applied. Listening for the sound of the air brakes of an approaching bus is one of the safety lessons students are taught during kindergarten orientation, school officials said.

Most of the buses Pine-Richland now uses to transport students already produce fewer harmful emissions.

Of the 89 vehicles in its fleet, three buses are electric, 55 operate on propane and six run on diesel. There also are 25 gasoline-powered vans.

Level 2 charging stations were installed at the district's bus terminal in through a partnership with Duquesne Light, which offers a rebate rebate program to cover part of the cost.

The new electric buses purchased from International are expected to have a range of 135 miles on a full charge, and up to 150 miles in optimal conditions. A full charge typically takes between six and eight hours.

In addition to the pilot program at Pine-Richland, STA is testing electric school buses in Los Angeles; Trenton, N.J.; Middletown, N.Y.; Barre, Vt.; and Calgary, Canada. Pilot programs for districts in five other states have been approved and are in the planning stages, according to company officials.

District superintendent Brian Miller said it is exciting to be able to participate in the project.

"For many years, we have maintained a propane bus fleet," he said. "This opportunity to utilize electric buses aligns with a strategic focus on sustainability."

When the district announced last year that it would be participating in the electric bus program, Miller noted that being able to switch from diesel to propane was one of the factors considered when the district began its relationship eight years ago with STA.

Rachel Lane, who leads STA's Green Fleet initiative as the company's vice president of electrification and sustainability, said the growing popularity of electric vehicles in the consumer market has helped ease some of the concerns for fleet operators who were uncertain about whether such vehicles are a viable alternative.

In most cases, fleet operators such as school districts are easing the electrics into their lineup to test them out.

"They're adding a few electric buses at a time so they can get familiar with them before expanding their electrification programs," she said. "We're getting to the point where we shouldn't be calling these pilot programs anymore.

"While it may be new for a school district to begin adding electric buses, we've gained a lot of experience to be able to guide them as they go through the transition process," she said.

Lane said the six pilot programs launched by STA have provided the company with insights into how the vehicles will operate in real-world situations.

"The monitoring at the different sites gives us a feel for how the vehicles will operate in a colder climate, how the battery life is affected by hilly areas compared to flat terrain. It's also an opportunity to get feedback from the mechanics and drivers."

Lane, who was among the speakers at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Electric Fleet Expo on May 24 at the UPMC Events Center in Moon, said most of the concerns raised about electric buses have centered on the range limitations.

While electric buses aren't a viable alternative for every district, such as those where students must travel long distances, they can work well in districts that serve urban and suburban communities, she said.

"These obstacles can be worked out by looking at the routes you have and the capabilities of the bus along with the other factors that might impact the range," she said. "They might find that it's necessary to charge the bus midway through the day."

Making sure an electric bus has enough power to deliver students can also be addressed by assigning the electric vehicles to one of the shorter routes, she said.

"There are certainly concerns that come up during discussions about switching to electric vehicles, but most of the issues can be addressed with some planning," Lane said.

©2023 The Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.