Onteora, like every school district, is working to comply with a state mandate prohibiting the purchase of buses with internal combustion engines after the 2027-28 school year and requiring the entire fleet to be electric by 2035-36.
District Transportation Director Nicole Sommer’s job is hard enough managing bus routes within a 300-square-mile district and assessing roads in bad weather, even driving them herself. Now, she’s got to deal with the electric bus mandate, but transportation contractor First Student has assembled a team to help with the project.
The district was awarded an $8 million grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to purchase 21 electric buses and build the necessary charging infrastructure, which will help with finances since an electric bus, at $375,000, is three times the cost of a diesel model.
Final purchase paperwork must be submitted by October 2024.
“As you could imagine, First Student or frankly, anybody in the industry doesn’t really have an easy way to go pay 3x for a school bus right now. So this was always going to come down to a state and federal funding process,” said Brian Fitzgerald, regional senior vice president at First Student said during a December 6 videoconference with the Onteora School Board.
The buses will be owned by Onteora and operated by First Student, which is consulting with the district. The transportation company will examine all the routes to determine the battery capacity needed for each bus, but at this point, there are more questions than answers.
Until the mandate, the district will need to purchase some diesel-powered buses to replace some very old ones with high mileage. Any new diesel buses will age out prior to the mandate.
“In New York, we’re likely to get there a whole lot faster than probably anywhere in the country, save maybe California. And some of the mandates you just heard about around ’27 and ’35…they’re aggressive,” said Fitzgerald.
The company has already gained experience running 200 electric school buses, with the majority in Canada. “The good news about that is, with concerns about potential weather issues, there’s no better place to test drive these things than eastern Canada. And that’s actually going very well,” Fitzgerald said.
The battery capacity ranges from 155-315 kilowatts, Senior VP for maintenance Todd Hawkins explained.
“So what we have to do is analyze your routes and determine, based on your climate and your terrain, and how long the route is, how big of a battery you need. And then we have to assess the site to determine how much power is at the site,” he said, referring to the location where the buses are parked. “It’s a big math equation to figure out how much of the battery do you use on a route? When you come back in midday, how much time do we have to recharge the bus so we can go back out with a full charge in the afternoon. So it’s really about how much power to use on the route, how big is the battery and how much time do we have to bring the battery back up to full charge. And what that does is determine how much, how big of a charger we need.”
Hawkins continued. “So, the grant gave us $375,000 to buy a vehicle, and then gives us $20,000 to buy a charger, and that would probably be enough to do the whole thing, but we don’t know how much power we’ve got.”
First Student is working with Central Hudson to determine the electric needs. Charging stations will be located at First Student’s leased lot and garage or at the middle/high school depending on power availability.
Onteora Trustee Kristy Taylor said she was concerned about electric vehicle battery fires in the news and questioned First Student about any safety plans. “From what I understand, you can’t actually put them out like you would a typical fire. The batteries don’t actually go out. They have to burn until they’re completely through. And then a lot of times they have to be submerged in water,” she said. “With our area and volunteer fire departments, is there a safety plan being looked at as to how we’re going to handle any kind of bus fire?”
Hawkins said First Student is working on ways to prevent fires.
“This is an area that we’re pioneering for the industry as well. We’re working with a company by the name of Fike aerospace, and Fike has a proprietary technology that is a three-spectrum IR detector that is fused with an actual camera that watches the vehicles while they’re charging, because we want to be mindful of the potential of a thermal runaway in a battery or a charger fault,” Hawkins said. “And the key here is not waiting until you know the vehicle is totally involved in a thermal event. If you can get to it quick enough, then you can basically disarm the high energy system, and in a lot of cases even potentially stop the fire.”
Taylor asked what happens when the bus is occupied.
“So if there’s children on the bus, typically the engine on a combustible bus is in the front, but the battery is going to be underneath the feet of the children. Do they burn faster? Do they have the same amount of time to get off the bus if one catches fire while they’re on it?” she asked.
“From what we’ve experienced,” Hawkins replied, “and come to understand in conversations with the federal government, who is actually tracking fires, we know that there’s a window to evacuate a bus that’s somewhere within that five to eight minute time period. And yes, we believe that there is enough warning that we would have ample time to pull the vehicle off to the side of the road and evacuate the children off of the bus before the bus is fully engulfed,” Hawkins said.
“What happens if there’s power loss to the garage overnight because we typically lose power all the time in the winter. How are you going to be able to do the bus runs in the morning?” Taylor asked.
“That’s where we work with the utility for what we term to be resiliency. And there’s a couple of different things that we can do. From a resiliency standpoint, it looks like there may be a couple of different circuits. For example, I’m focusing on the high school that we would request the utility split the load into two separate circuits. And the reason why we do that is to try and minimize the amount of total power loss to the site,” Hawkins said. “So therefore, if you lose one circuit, you still have the potential for another, the parallel circuit, still operating to continue to charge some of the buses…Secondarily, there are other options, for example, standby (generator) power, in the event of a total loss of power to the facility.”
There are many logistics to be worked out, such as training fire departments on handling battery fires and how to make sure buses are adequately charged in the event of an early dismissal.