Credit: Rupert Ganzer / Flickr

The Triad school district, just outside the St. Louis suburbs, hopes to replace half of its diesel fleet over 15 years. 

When students eventually return to the Triad school district in southwest Illinois, officials are hoping to have a cleaner option to get them there. 

The district has arranged for the purchase of three Motiv Type C electric school buses through funding provided by the Volkswagen lawsuit settlement. The buses were initially scheduled for delivery this spring, but with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, that delivery has been delayed. 

Though it’s not yet clear when the new buses will arrive, the district is still taking the long view with a tentative 15-year plan to replace 50% of its 27-vehicle fleet from carbon-based fuels to electric, according to Kevin McGraw, transportation manager for the school district.

“Diesel is just getting very costly, and not all that reliable anymore. You know, they’re very dirty. They’re very loud and they just cost an arm or leg to fix these things,” McGraw said.

Triad is one of many districts around the Midwest using the Volkswagen funds to clean up its transportation fleets.

School buses represent the largest form of mass transportation for children across the United States, transporting approximately 25 million children annually. Switching school bus fleets to electric power would mean less exposure to toxic diesel fumes for children, translating to up to 14 million fewer illness-related absences from school every year, according to a January presentation by Susan Mudd of the Environmental Policy Law Center in Chicago, which worked with Ameren Illinois to help the Triad district with the transition.

In Illinois, the state Environmental Protection Agency has allocated $10.8 million toward replacing pre-2009 diesel powered school buses. That sum is the largest allocation for school bus replacement in the Midwest. Michigan has allocated between $3 and $4 million, Ohio has allocated $3 million and Indiana has allocated $2.5 million for new school buses.

In south suburban Chicago, electric school buses are presently in operation in Richton Park and Chicago Heights, with an additional electric bus scheduled to serve the Chicago Public School system in the coming months. 

Ameren Illinois, a utility that services much of the state outside the Chicago area, has been working in collaboration with the Environmental Policy Law Center to encourage the introduction of electric school buses. 

“We realized that when we look at all these important health and economic factors,” Mudd said, “the best places to put the money were on transit buses, to get them electric, school buses to get them electric, and to do something about getting more electric charging stations.”

Properly equipped electric school buses can also amortize much of their upfront costs by providing vehicle-to-grid electricity, feeding power back into the grid during the hottest days of the year. That’s because school buses largely run on a predictable, restricted schedule, largely sitting idle at night and for much of the summer. 

Vehicle-to-grid electrical power would be much less expensive to operate than constructing additional electrical infrastructure. And although most electric school buses on the road today lack bi-directional capability, some electric school buses do have this capability and more are under development, Mudd said.

Triad, which serves a rural area just outside the St. Louis suburbs, will run its electric buses on three different routes. Each of the buses has a 90-mile range before requiring recharging.

One is a short in-town route of just 45 miles. A second, longer rural route is about 80 miles long. The final bus will run 110-miles total each day — with a midday break to charge — and will serve students with disabilities. 

Range limitations were a particularly important consideration, and not just for mileage. Necessary accommodations such as electric wheelchair lifts place additional demands on electric buses, according to McGraw.

The district can presently accommodate six electric chargers without making changes in the grid. Three Level 2 chargers have already been purchased, and discussion is underway on the purchase of a Level 3 fast charger, McGraw said.

“I like the idea that it gives a safety net,” McGraw said. “You just never know when a driver might forget to plug a vehicle in. They come in the next day and it wasn’t plugged in and we have to do this fast charge. Or just any really unforeseen events pop up that we just need to get a quick charge on there real quick and get [the bus] out there on the road.”

Regular maintenance is one area where electric school buses will not present additional challenges. Like all buses, the electric school buses will require tire rotation, light bulb replacement and other regular upkeep. However, the school district has a warranty service which will handle major repairs. And while brake inspections will also be required, there should be less general wear and tear with electric buses, according to McGraw.

“With the brakes, we are anticipating to see somewhere around 60% less wear because they do have that regenerative braking,” McGraw said.

Before the electric buses hit the road, drivers will undergo special training. Training will focus first on drivers assigned to routes serviced by electric buses, but eventually all drivers, including standby drivers, will be trained to drive the electric buses.

Financing represents one of the biggest challenges. The district plans to take a gradual approach to introducing electric buses. Electric school buses cost much more than diesel or gasoline powered school buses, although reduced fuel and maintenance costs somewhat offset the overall expense, McGraw said.

“We can’t dig in and just swap everything over immediately. So we want to kind of phase it in, slowly. Also, we’re hoping that the limitations on mileage and size, with technology advances really open up a lot more doors for us,” McGraw said.

The three electric buses on order do not have vehicle-to-grid capability. However, that is definitely under consideration for future electric bus purchases, according to McGraw.

“We’re seeing that we could not only help the grid out, but also, charge our buses on non-peak hours. It just really wasn’t something that was necessarily thought about at the time. When we learned more about the electric electrification of the fleets, we came across [vehicle to grid]. At that point it was a little late to this project,” McGraw said.

The district is eagerly anticipating the arrival of the electric school buses, and putting them into service once schools reopen. McGraw is proud of the fact that Triad is one of the first school districts in southern Illinois to introduce electric school buses into its fleet.

“We’re just very excited. We’re really ready for these buses. I’m really ready to get the electric fleet going,” McGraw said.

Mudd says wider implementation of electric school buses is just one aspect of a larger goal to reduce the carbon footprint attributable to transportation.

“What we’re advocating for first is to get electric school buses; secondl,; vehicle-to-grid if you know where it can work. And then thirdly, we would like the power that is feeding them when they’re recharging to be solar, wind or renewables, so that we’re minimizing the carbon footprint of transporting people and children.” Mudd said “Coal-fired power plants are closing down and more renewables are coming online every year. So the two things actually can help each other positively reinforce each other.”

Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.