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Don’t Scrap That Diesel School Bus; Retrofit It as an EV

Repowering older, internal combustion school buses as battery-electric versions can extend the life of bus fleets and save districts a lot of money as they transition to EVs.

From left, Bill Williams, vice president of sales at SEA Electric; Craig Beaver, administrator for transportation at the Beaverton School District; Adrian Gomez Jr., program manager at Forth Mobility; and Emmett Werthmann, research and engagement analyst for the Electric School Bus Initiative at World Resources Institute, speaking on a panel at the Forth Roadmap Conference in Portland, Ore., May 16, 2023.
Skip Descant/Government Technology
PORTLAND, Ore. — Getting more electric school buses into operation could come from converting older internal combustion engine (ICE) models to an electric motor.

This option has been put forward as a cheaper, and possibly quicker, alternative to buying a new electric bus outright.

“We have a lot of scaling we need to do. We teach our kids to reduce, reuse and recycle. And here we are throwing away a perfectly good old bus, and replacing it with a new one,” said Bill Williams, vice president of sales at SEA Electric, during a panel at the Forth Roadmap Conference May 16 in Portland, Ore.

SEA Electric converts medium- and heavy-duty internal combustion vehicles to battery-electric models, and has developed a plan and product to retrofit school buses. Today, only about 1 percent of the more than 480,000 buses serving thousands of school districts are electric.

However, major pieces of federal legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act are helping to transition these buses from internal combustion engines to electric motors. All of this funding will likely create bottlenecks in the supply chain for getting new e-buses out quickly, say industry watchers. Also, an older ICE vehicle can be converted for only about a third of the cost of purchasing a new electric bus.

“It makes them a lot more accessible for school districts to be able to electrify their fleet,” said Adrian Gomez Jr., program manager at Forth Mobility, speaking on the panel at the Roadmap conference, a gathering of electric vehicle industry product providers and policymakers.

One of the challenges to repower conversions is the limited application of federal funding toward these projects. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant-funding — the main source of funding for electric school bus grants — can only be applied to retrofitting a new ICE vehicle. Those older buses are not eligible, said Williams.

At least one Oregon school district plans to help make the case for a bus retrofit. The Beaverton School District will retrofit a 2008 diesel bus with a battery-electric power train, as part of a pilot project. The district — which transports some 25,000 students a day, operating 360 buses and traveling about 3 million miles a year — has ambitious electric school bus goals. By the end of 2024, the district aims to have 30 e-buses in operation, 50 buses by 2026, and reach 100 buses by 2029, said Craig Beaver, administrator for transportation at the Beaverton School District.

The Beaverton School District is also putting in a 1.2-megawatt microgrid with battery storage and solar generation to support 50 chargers.

The district appreciates the cost savings associated with the cheaper cost of electricity compared to diesel. However, the biggest savings come from ongoing maintenance costs, said Beaver, adding that if federal funding is not available, the district can go the repower route to meet its own e-bus goals.

“Because of the size of our district, we’re able to try new technologies,” said Beaver.

Hopefully, said Williams, pilots like the one in Beaverton School District will make the case for the EPA to allow federal funding for projects that retrofit older buses.

“If we could really convince the EPA that repowering is a viable solution, this funding would go three times further,” he said. “We could have a lot more buses electrified and get rid of some tailpipes.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.