Transportation electrification is continuing to expand as more medium- and heavy-duty vehicles enter the market. Electric buses in particular — both transit and school buses — are hitting roads across the country as cities, schools, airports and other large organizations add them to their fleets. These buses provide a unique set of benefits to the organizations purchasing them, the communities they drive through, the environment around them and the electric utilities that power them.
Electric buses are highly efficient and have lower operating costs than diesel buses. Fuel savings can be significant when comparing electricity with diesel, and the buses also have fewer moving parts and maintenance needs. Between fuel and maintenance savings, they can save hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes that can be invested back into the operating organization or community.
One example of these savings was seen in Greensboro, North Carolina. Adam Fischer, former transportation director for the City of Greensboro, discussed savings estimates during a presentation he gave at a Plug-in NC event. His team calculated that switching from a diesel to an electric bus would save nearly $160,000 in fuel and $185,000 in maintenance over the bus’s lifetime.
Electric buses are safe, reliable and have similar rates of downtime to other technologies. Their quiet, smooth rides allow passengers to relax and easily have conversations, and the lack of a diesel engine reduces noise pollution.
In addition, both transit and school buses are often used in areas with high concentrations of people, and children are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of pollution, which has been linked to asthma and poor test performance in schools. Without vehicle emissions and particulates, electric buses provide cleaner air for our communities. They are even superior when considering the emissions associated with the electricity used for charging. In North Carolina, a diesel bus would need to average 14.7 mpg to achieve life-cycle emissions equal to that of an electric bus; actual mpg is closer to 4.8.
Dominion Energy recognized the community advantages of electric buses and created a program to deploy school buses throughout Virginia. On the program’s website, Dominion explains the benefits for students and communities, including inside air quality being six times better than non-electric models and greenhouse gas emission reductions of 54,000 pounds each year.
For the utilities that power electric buses, the technology can improve grid reliability and sustainability by helping to manage peak demand and supporting renewable energy integration. Many buses will run all day and charge in a garage at night, during off-peak times.
The University of Georgia is taking advantage of off-peak charging as it prepares to have more electric buses than any university in the nation. The campus receives a reduced electricity rate to charge its buses at night in its transit facility, and this new rate has helped lower fueling costs from $100 per day with diesel to $5 – $10 with electricity. Students are now working to redesign the campus transit facility to add solar panels.
With their large batteries and energy storage capabilities, electric buses also offer strong potential for vehicle-to-grid applications, allowing stored energy to be supplied back to the grid. Con Edison in New York City launched a program in 2018 to use electricity from electric bus batteries to support its grid during hot summer months. The utility receives 75 kilowatts from five buses that it discharges when grid demand is high. As part of its electric school bus program, Dominion Energy is similarly planning to tap into vehicle-to-grid opportunities.
The Bus of the Future
While there is a lot of warranted excitement around electric buses, there are still some drawbacks, like higher purchase prices, a need for new charging infrastructure and limited driving ranges. As the buses continue to be deployed and improved, though, these challenges will become less of a bump in the road. Electric buses have a promising future, and the benefits they bring to all involved will further encourage their success.