By Jack Rubinger

Portland Public Schools (PPS) was recently awarded a grant from Portland General Electric (PGE) and PacifiCorp to purchase an electric bus and install a charging station.

“We will be buying one bus and installing the infrastructure to charge it. It will be a fully electric bus,” said Teri Brady, Director of PPS Transportation Services. “We expect to make the decision by the end of June on which manufacturers best meet our needs. We’ll then send our purchasing contracts to the school board for authorization.”

Electric school buses are growing in popularity nationwide for several practical reasons.

They’re less costly to maintain than diesel. They’re healthier for kids and drivers with asthma who don’t have to deal with emissions. They’re quieter, cleaner and more efficient than diesel buses, making student transportation as clean as it can be.

On the downside, electric buses are three times more expensive than diesel buses.

“Electric school buses are very much in our future and we are excited for the chance to learn from this pilot project,” Brady said.

PPS started converting their fleets to propane and moving away from diesel in the 1980s. Around 400 electric school buses are now running in North America with more than half picking up and dropping off students in California, according to electric bus manufacturers.

TriMet has put five new battery-electric buses into service. These city buses are powered by cutting-edge technology and they have some significant advantages over the current fleet.

A day in the life of an electric bus is a lot like a day in the life of an electric car. Drivers unplug the vehicle in the morning, drive the bus back to the yard by mid-day, recharge for afternoon routes and recharge overnight.

Manufacturers say there are opportunities to seek funding for electric school buses with utility companies. For further efficiency, electric school bus batteries can be re-used and re-purposed.

Another benefit? According to Bluebird, electric bus operators will be able to “sell” energy back to the grid during certain peak hours, putting more dollars back into the classroom.

Storing up electricity in the electric school bus batteries and then selling it back to the electric utility for use when grid energy demand is higher, would require ongoing conversations with the electric utility to facilitate any billing changes/credits.

Kelly Yearick from Forth Mobility lead a webinar on the subject of electric school buses and provided details about electric school bus energy consumption.

Electric school buses receive their ‘fuel’ in the way of electricity from the grid, which is then stored in batteries on the vehicle. Most school buses, like transit buses, have designated routes that they travel each school day, making their fuel needs easily calculable.

This makes a lot of sense in the middle of the summer when a) electricity demand is high b) school buses aren’t being used to transport students and c) the electric utility would be able to use electricity produced earlier in the day by renewable sources of energy rather than dipping into a nonrenewable source of energy, such as that produced by a coal-fired power plant.

In May, PGE announced five winners of the 2020 School Bus Electrification Project, putting the first five electric school buses on the road to serve Oregon students in 2021.

Using funding from the Oregon Clean Fuels Program, the Beaverton, Newberg, Portland, Reynolds and Salem-Keizer school districts were chosen based on their commitments to meet the needs of underserved communities and incorporate the buses more broadly into student education around climate science.

The five districts will each receive funding to purchase an electric school bus, install charging infrastructure and provide technical and training support.

Seeking long-term strategies to improve conditions for students and drivers driven by the ongoing response to COVID-19, manufacturers are collaborating with customers to deal with social distancing and seating, looking at ways to reconfigure seating, PPE for drivers, sanitation and disinfection.

Electric bus image from Thomas Built Buses