News Article

Electric Transit and School Bus Initiatives in the Southeast

July 28, 2020
By Jonathan Susser

The medium- and heavy-duty vehicle market offers tremendous potential for electrification, and cities, schools, utilities and other organizations are noticing. A new three-part webinar series from the Clean Cities Coalitions of North Carolina and Plug-in NC is highlighting the electric opportunities in this segment of transportation.

The opening webinar, “Electric Transit and School Bus Initiatives in the Southeast,” focused on efforts underway at Dominion Energy and the Greensboro Transit Agency (GTA). Kate Staples, Dominion Energy Virginia’s manager of electrification, discussed the utility’s electric school bus program, while George Linney, transit systems analyst, and Jay Perkins, maintenance director, shared GTA’s experience operating electric transit buses for the last 1.5 years.

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round, Quietly

Launched in fall 2019, Dominion Energy’s Electric School Bus initiative is helping school districts in Virginia electrify their bus fleets. The program supports this transition by paying the cost difference between a new diesel and an electric school bus and by providing the necessary charging infrastructure — the buses will be charged with 60-kilowatt Proterra DC fast chargers.

The effort is currently in Phase 1, in which 50 electric school buses — all of the Thomas Built Buses Jouley™ variety — are being deployed in 16 school districts. The number of buses per district ranges from one to eight.

A primary objective of Dominion Energy’s program is to explore how electric school buses can be an asset to the electric power grid. In particular, the utility hopes to harness the technology in vehicle-to-grid (V2G) applications, such that, when parked, the buses can both store energy in and discharge energy from their batteries to provide grid stability and backup power.

Electric school buses are ideal candidates for V2G for a few reasons: their large batteries (in Dominion Energy’s case, up to 220 kilowatt-hours and a lifetime warranty), their predictable daily routes (of just four to six hours per day) and their yearly operation (they generally operate only half the year). Therefore, when they’re not on the road, they offer significant potential for grid optimization.

Like all forms of electric transportation, school buses come with a busload of other benefits as well. For one, they’re clean. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of air pollution, so having no tailpipe emissions and better local air quality is a big boon.

These buses are expected to get the equivalent of 17 mpg, which is nearly three times the typical diesel rate of 6 mpg. Each electric bus will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 54,000 pounds per year.

Then there are the ongoing savings. Dominion Energy anticipates operational expenses to be up to 60% lower for the electric school buses than for diesel school buses thanks to the reduced cost of driving on electricity and fewer maintenance needs. And, importantly, the localities get to keep all the savings they see.

The number one priority for Dominion Energy, however, is safety. The cleanliness mentioned above comes into play here, and all of the buses feature three-point seatbelts. They are also extremely quiet, meaning drivers can better concentrate, communicate with students and perceive their surroundings.

The goal is to have Phase 1’s 50 buses delivered and ready to go by the end of the year. Dominion Energy is providing training for school districts and maintenance technicians as well as community outreach. Meanwhile, it will work toward growing the program. Staples said there has been substantial interest, and the utility is excited to add more districts in the future.

A Year in the Life with Electric Transit Buses

GTA has served Greensboro since 1991. It covers 131 square miles through 16 routes and one connector route. For the past two years or so, it has contracted with Keolis, a public transport operator, to help with day-to-day operations, training and maintenance.

In early 2019, Greensboro became the first city in North Carolina to add electric buses. After deploying four Proterra Catalyst E2 buses in January, it added 12 more throughout the year. Its 16 electric buses represent one-third of its entire bus fleet.

GTA has already recognized the noise and environmental benefits of the technology and is in the process of calculating the financial savings. It hasn’t all been smooth, though, and Greensboro has learned a lot from its initial foray into electric transportation.

The biggest takeaway for GTA has been the need to plan for infrastructure demands. The organization started out with more buses than charging stations and only one fast charger across its electric fleet. This setup required creative planning to rotate and coordinate schedules so that each bus was ready to serve its route.

Another concern that cropped up was finding maintenance personnel to diagnose and repair issues. Although electric buses have fewer moving parts and maintenance requirements, problems can still occur. Given how different the technology is from conventional diesel buses, it is important to have technicians qualified to perform work. GTA experienced some setbacks that affected its service but noted that Proterra provided excellent support to help get the buses back on the road.

As time has gone on and employees have gained experience and received training, GTA has become more comfortable with the technology. For example, bus operators have learned how different routes and weather can affect driving range, with hillier terrain and colder temperatures being particularly power-hungry. GTA has also added more chargers to ease operation — it now has about one per bus and hopes to expand even further, including getting a second fast charger.

More to Come

Stay tuned for the next two webinars in our series. In August, we’ll discuss purchasing and policy matters for medium- and heavy-duty electric vehicles, and in September, we’ll focus on utility considerations and other sector opportunities.