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In a Maryland County, the Yellow School Bus Is Going Green

The Montgomery County Public Schools district is transitioning all 1,400 school buses to electric models, aggressively retiring diesel buses as more districts explore funding and cleaner transportation options.

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The public school district in Montgomery County, Md., is on a path to transition its entire school bus fleet to electric vehicles in the next several years.

The district, the largest in the state, serving more than 162,000 students, operates some 1,400 school buses. It is now on an aggressive path to phasing out the diesel vehicles and replacing them with electric models.

“We were seeing lots of interest and pressure from all around. I was hearing from lots of environmental groups, elected leaders, board members, from student groups, wondering when we were going to go electric,” said Todd Watkins, transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools.

The district entered into a contract with Highland Electric Transportation, an electric school bus fleet subscription service to provide an electric fleet at the same cost the district pays to purchase and operate its fleet of diesel buses.

“I was very intrigued, of course about this plan. I thought it was too good to be true when I first heard it,” said Watkins, in his comments on a panel discussion about electric school buses at the Forth Roadmap conference earlier this week.

This school year, the county will receive its first 25 buses, then 61 next year, said Watkins.

“And then each year after that, 120. Which is how many we replace in a year,” he explained. “So we’re planning, as of two years from now, to buy no more diesel buses.”

The move in Montgomery County is emblematic of the steps other districts are taking as they transition bus fleets away from fossil fuels toward electric technology. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has a goal of transitioning all 480,000 school buses in the nation to electric versions by 2030, said Sue Gander, director of the Electric School Bus Initiative at the WRI. The buses transport 26 million students every day.

“They [school buses] do a good job at that. But they are also responsible for serious air quality and climate change impacts. And we really need to focus in on addressing those as quickly as possible. But the good news is, there is a better route,” said Gander in her comments on the panel.

“It’s really important that we take this momentum … And really put it to good use,” said Gander. “We have the opportunity to electrify what is the largest fleet of public vehicles in the country.”

The shifting market is influencing the conversations transportation officials — namely at the local school district level — are having about a piece of equipment as ubiquitous as the yellow school bus, said Leslie Kilgore, vice president for engineering and technology at Thomas Built Buses.

“Before, you really didn’t see this much energy, this much passion, this much engagement into the school bus industry,” she told the panel.

“Because we were pretty much a commodity, where the purpose was transportation. And now, what we see as an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] is a shifting of the use case of the school bus,” said Kilgore, calling attention to concepts like “vehicle-to-grid,” where an e-bus’s battery can be used to push electricity back onto the grid during peak demand times.

“When we think about sustainability, and we think about air quality, and we think about, really educating some of our students on the science and the technology that exist in the buses that they ride to school every day,” said Kilgore. “And so now, you almost have an opportunity transition the educational process, from the point of pickup.”

Financing the shift to e-buses is still a challenge, with electric buses costing about three times the cost of a conventional model. It means school officials need to become informed about the incentive landscape and other options like the sort of lease arrangements Montgomery County is using. Districts also need to have an understanding of issues like demand charges from utilities, charging infrastructure and the many factors that can affect the range of an electric bus, say industry and other officials.

Still, a school bus — with its set route and predictable operations — is a good vehicle to electrify. You know where it’s going to go every day. You know where it’s going to park at night, said Watkins.

Also, growing the electric school bus market has the potential to spur manufacturing for EVs in the medium and heavy-duty transportation sectors, said Gander.

“When you think about the scale of the electric bus fleet, it’s also an opportunity to build a pathway to electrification of the entire medium and heavy-duty sector as well,” she added. “So a great on-ramp to the trucks and other parts of the medium and heavy-duty sector.”
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 Sacramento.
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