10 things bus fleets need in order to electrify (Part 1 of 2)

School Buses Lined Up

by Alison Wiley

“I don’t understand this contract at all,” a Transportation Director of a medium-sized school district recently told me. Thad (not his real name) had been running buses for decades, almost all diesels, like most of his peers. He’d landed a grant for his first electric school bus and charging infrastructure, and the contract he was looking at was written by the investor owned utility (IOU)* that was providing the funds.

“I don’t know any of these terms. Am I giving away the farm if I sign this thing?” Thad asked me, just half joking. He had the funding to start electrifying. But he needed more than that to succeed. I’ll call this situation Thad’s Dilemma.

For those new to this blog, I’m Alison Wiley here in Oregon, with 16 years in transportation, the last four plus years in the electric bus space. I’m on a mission of electric buses, equity and inclusion, still on a sharp learning curve  (the field grows and changes rapidly). I do paid electric bus projects, but I write this letter as a volunteer. Why? Because I love buses, and the people who ride and operate them (who deserve to breathe clean air), and the climate we all share. So, that’s me.

All signs point to the future of buses (and transportation in general) being electric. NextEra Energy plans to electrify tens of thousands of buses across both public transit and school fleets, spurred by the Biden-Harris’s administration’s clean transportation goals. Investor Highland Electric Transportation made the biggest deal yet with a Montgomery School District in Maryland for 300 electric school buses (ESB’s). Thomas Built, which makes ESB’s, wrote an article for School Transportation News: “”The school bus just got another job . . . .  at least in the eyes of utility providers . . .  (school buses are) essentially giant batteries on wheels.”

Those last words speak to Thad’s Dilemma. He wants cleaner air for the kiddos he transports, and free money is great, right? But, batteries on wheels? A new job? Thad is over his head. How does an under-resourced bus fleet just starting to electrify hold its own as it deals with well-resourced players like utilities and manufacturers? The latter have agendas that may dovetail with the mission of his bus fleet — but they could conflict with it.

To answer Thad’s Dilemma: what do bus fleets need to succeed in the hard work of electrifying? Here are the first five of my ten suggestions, with the other five coming out next month.

1.) Peer to peer learning on electric buses. Fleet managers trust each other more than consultants, OEM’s, utilities, me or anyone else. They live in the same world, dealing with the same gritty problems: lean resources, a shortage of drivers, sharp COVID stressors. Bus fleets need steady access to their peers who are already running electric buses to hear their advice and lessons learned. Thad, like most bus folks, has not gotten any systematic peer to peer learning on electrifying.

The Electric Bus Learning Project I’m leading here in Oregon is holding peer to peer learning forums via Zoom. (It’s funded by an IOU, though not Thad’s.) We’re combining public transit and school bus fleet people, which seems to work fine in the early stages of learning to electrify. One person participating in it says that he couldn’t have gotten the two electric buses he now has without having been in a peer to peer e-bus group a few years ago. I know of an e-bus learning project in Boulder Colorado led by Paola Massoli, and of ZEBRA, a group for transit agencies deploying zero emissions buses,. Please let me know of other such learning communities.

2.) Training in utility-speak and charging infrastructure. Thad asked me if I or someone could create a good, basic manual or even a two-pager with key terms that would help bus fleets interact with utilities. An infographic like this is on the list for my Electric Bus Learning Project to create. In the meantime, see How To Speak Utility, the middle section of these FAQ’s on e-buses, and the second webinar of the electric school bus webinar series that I helped CTE to create. Again, let me know of more resources I can share in this newsletter.

3.) Women’s leadership. Collaboration and support (not competition or aggression) are what it will take to navigate the big, disruptive shift from fossil-fueled fleets to electric-powered fleets. Women excel at collaboration, mutual support and empowerment of the people on the margins who can benefit the most from clean-running buses.

Women are also good at having fun together. So, I’ve cofounded Women Advancing School Bus Electrification (WASBE) with my colleagues Malinda Sandhu and Susan Mudd, to enhance and expand women’s leadership. Our first WASBE forum last month drew 22 women from around the nation, with our next online event coming up in May. Great information-exchange, networking, and mutual encouragement, along the lines of the more formally organized, longer-standing Women in Electric Vehicles (WEV’s).

Speaking of info and networking, the Green [School] Bus Summit is coming up on April 20-22; register here. It’s free.Only some sessions are on electric buses, but I’m going! I recently talked with Ryan Gray,  who organizes this conference and who edits School Transportation News. I was happy to hear that Ryan has been using my No Manels and No Whanels lists of women speakers and speakers of color, and encouraging other people to be sure that no panels are male only (a manel) nor white-only (a whanel).

4.) Nonprofit, third-party support and leadership (bus fleets and the utilities fueling their buses are the first two parties). World Resources Institute, a huge nonprofit, is leading a $50 million Electric School Bus Initiative. with the goal of “a path towards electrifying the entire fleet of [480,000] U.S. school buses by 2030”. The initiative won’t be paying for physical electric buses, but rather, the market transformation that will enable mass adoption of them.  “Overcoming the cost, infrastructure and policy barriers to mass adoption will require a systemic approach that engages an entire ecosystem of actors and prioritizes inclusive planning with impacted communities.

I think those last six words are pivotal. As I mentioned last month, Chispa (clean buses for healthy ninos) is the long-time, leading nonprofit advocate to get electric school buses funded. It chairs a coalition of many nonprofits that support electric buses. The federal legislature is currently considering a massive funding package for ESB’s, partly due to Chispa’s work.

5.) Option of local control of charging infrastructure. Thad’s utility wanted credits/revenue for clean electric fuel. It built ownership/control of the charging infrastructure into his contract to ensure it would get those. But the community in which an ESB resides might benefit from quite a different situation, one in which its own ESB-centered microgrid of electricity could be under its own control, especially to supply resiliency during power outages. (See my earlier article on what electric school buses can power).

I just landed a grant, in partnership with Forth and Hacienda CDC here in Portland Oregon, to explore a concept that centers low-income community control of ESB batteries. I’ll share more after Portland Clean Energy Fund, our funder, makes its formal announcement of the projects it’s funding.

In the end (and we are at the end) we can tell Thad in his dilemma that win-wins are possible between bus fleets and the utilities supplying their electric fuel. They are already happening in some places, even as tensions and conflicts of interest get negotiated.

But you have to have full information to be part of a win-win deal. Bus fleets don’t yet have full or sometimes even partial information on electrifying. That can change! Coming up next month: five more things bus fleets need to electrify successfully.

*Note: all IOU’s are for-profits. They are among the prime funders of ESB’s, though not of electric public transit buses, because ESB’s are parked much more, especially in the summer, and can potentially feed their stored battery energy back into utilities’ power grids at key times.


This blog was first published by ElectricSchoolBus.org and was reprinted with permission.

About the Author:

I’m Alison Wiley here in Portland Oregon, on an advocacy mission of electric school buses, equity and inclusion. I’ve been in the transportation field since 2006, specializing in electric buses since 2016. I’m a writer, relationship-builder and advocate, creating the newsletters on this website as a public service. Why?

  • I’m worried as hell about climate change, which hurts black, indigenous and people of color the worst, as do diesel emissions
  • I’m a person of faith who was raised to do the right thing
  • My agenda is to hasten the transition from diesel-fueled buses to electricity-fueled buses, in teamwork with many others

Find me running the forested hills of Mt Tabor, practicing hospitality with my husband Thor Hinckley and serving on the leadership team of EcoFaith Recovery, which blends faith with activism. Visit my website to find how to contact me.

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