US revives school bus electrification efforts

In the Maryland county of Montgomery, an initiative for the electric conversion of buses has been launched, marking the largest single electric school bus procurement in the USA so far. Additionally, Los Angeles has ordered 10 Lion electric school buses and California has begun installing charging stations at their schools.

The Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education has approved a contract with Highland Electric Transportation, a turnkey electric fleet solution provider, to convert the standing school bus fleet to electric vehicles, starting with 326 school buses over the next four years. This project represents the largest single procurement of electric school buses in North America, so far. The total extent of the conversion project will see the 1,400 diesel buses currently active in the Montgomery school bus fleet converted to battery-electric vehicles over a twelve-year period. This marks a major contract for Highland Electric, which also recently completed a successful investment round to fund growth for the company.

To be specific, Todd Watkins, transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools, said Montgomery County will add 25 electric buses to its fleet this fall and an additional 61 electric buses are to follow next year. After that, all of its replacement buses will be electric models, making for a rough total of 120 new acquisitions per year.

This is not the full extent of the project, however: Highland and its project partners, which include Thomas Built Buses, Proterra, and  American Bus, have been tasked with the electrification of all five of Montgomery County Public Schools’ bus depots, supplying the electric school buses and charging infrastructure along with services including managed charging. While Highland will provide the buses, they will actually be manufactured in North Carolina by Thomas Built Buses, which will be supplied and serviced by American Bus.

Reception of the project has not been entirely positive, although the underfunded US school system is likely the root cause. “I thought over the last several years that we’d be making a move to electric buses, but I thought we’d be doing it like dipping our toes in the water with one or two buses to start,” said Todd Watkins, transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Nat Kreamer, CEO of Advanced Energy Economy further explains the issue: “Many school districts in the country don’t have enough money for their core education program, much less making new investments…That’s a simple decision that can be made in the executive branch.” With the Biden administrations sweeping electrification targets, it is becoming clear how little investment happened under the previous administration, which now is putting additional pressure on agencies to explore pathways how to electrify the government fleet of 645,000 vehicles. Interestingly, the new presidential administration is also opting to explore the supply chain in the EV industry in an attempt to build a stronger foothold for local industry.

On the other side of the nation, Lion Electric announced an order for its battery-electric school buses from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The initial order is for 10 LionC school buses, following Lion’s recent delivery of all-electric school buses to the Twin Rivers Unified School District in Sacramento. The company has also been active in their native Canada, where they have been tasked with delivering 60 electric school buses in Quebec over the next five years. Amazon has also been interested in the school bus manufacturers capabilities and is planning a major order together with Lion Electric.

Also in California, the Porterville Unified School District located in Tulare County, California, recently placed an order for six new electric school buses. This has now been complemented with the order to install six new charging stations to provide the requisite energy for the electric school buses. The new contract has gone to ABB for their Terra 54 fast-charging stations, which will be installed nearby. The venture is also being shared with the Southern California Edison school district, which will then also be able to charge their buses there. The school district also intends to further expand their fleet, with plans already in the works to order four more electric buses during the next decade.,, (Maryland), (Lion Electric, PDF), (California charging stations)


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