The sun is just starting to peak over the horizon as I watch my daughter head for the bus stop. It’s 7:00 am and across the country millions of parents will be sending their children off to school as well. Sadly, I have learned that on her journey to school, my daughter will be poisoned by the diesel exhaust fumes coming from the very bus in which she is riding, and it’s a much bigger problem than I ever would have expected.
According to the EPA, “diesel exhaust from buses has a negative impact on human health, especially for children who have a faster breathing rate than adults and whose lungs are not yet fully developed. Asthma, which affects 6.3 million American school children, is the most common long-term childhood disease in America, making newer, cleaner buses an urgent priority.”
Studies from Environment and Human Health, Inc. have proven that riding a diesel bus everyday can increase a child’s risk for cancer by 4%, lower respiratory symptoms by 6%, and increase the rest of daily asthma hospitalizations by 1%. Children are exposed to airborne particulate concentrations inside school buses that are sometimes 5-15 times higher than background levels.
So if it’s this bad, what can be done about it? Well, as early as 1994, the Blue Bird bus company has offered a simple answer: electric school buses. Electric school buses eliminate the diesel engine and replace it instead with an electric motor powered by energy stored in battery packs. In addition to the obvious benefits of improved air quality, there are actually many other benefits to electric school buses as well.
Electric vehicles, by eliminating sometimes thousands of parts that require special maintenance and repair, require far less money to keep on the road. This is true of electric buses too. Because there is no need for engine oil changes, and no transmission or engine to maintain, Blue Bird’s buses have a lower cost of maintenance than a traditional, combustion-fueled bus. In fact, Blue Bird says that their electric models have up to an 80% reduction on maintenance costs over the life of the vehicle. What school fleet operator wouldn’t like that number?
However, what I was most excited to learn during a recent presentation, was that all Blue Bird electric buses will come equipped with the ability to access unused energy stored in the battery, and while plugged into a capable charger, sell that energy back to the grid. Energy companies can “buy back” stored energy that the buses are holding after a charge as well as charge the buses at off peak times when electrical power is less expensive. That’s right, cutting edge V2G technology on every bus. This has the power to significantly offset the cost of ownership for these vehicles.
So let’s talk about the technical specifications and capabilities of these buses. Each bus is equipped with fourteen high voltage battery modules that are divided into two sets of seven for redundancy should their be a failure in one half. A total of 155 kWh of usable energy is enough to provide up to 120 miles of range in ideal conditions.
The battery packs are tucked between 120,000 PSI C-Channel steel frame rails and enclosed on all sides for added protection. My understanding is that Blue Bird is the only company that has taken these extra steps to protect the battery packs from any potential damage.
The buses can be charged on Lvl 2 AC charging capable of 19.2 kW and would take 8 hrs to fully charge, but additionally have an optional fast charging provision capable of a DC rate of 60 kW. This would recharge the battery in only three hours.
A single electric motor mounted in the rear of the vehicle provides 315 hp and a whopping 2,400 ft-lbs. of torque!
“It’s like going from driving an old Lincoln to driving a new Cadillac,” says veteran bus driver Michelle Monteir, “It’s really smooth, quiet, and accelerates really fast.” Blue Bird didn’t have any 0-60 mph figures for me to work with, but after taking a short test ride I can tell you it’ll out perform any diesel powered bus without much effort.
Currently Blue Bird has two types of electric busses available, the Electric Vision Chassis with a standard front and the All American Chassis with a flat front. The flat front models offer greater visibility for drivers as well as added safety for children entering and exiting the bus.
So if electric school buses are so great, why aren’t more school districts making the switch? One obvious factor prohibiting a quick transition is the initial vehicle cost. Electric buses initially cost significantly more than their diesel counterparts. While state and federal grants can help reduce these costs, they aren’t available everywhere. However, Blue Bird did tell me that they are working on a financing program that will help their customers spread out the initial cost of the bus and ideally make this not a prohibitive factor. Combined with a lower cost of maintenance and the ability to sell electricity back to the energy provider and you've got a winning combination.
There are so many reasons that we need to make the switch to electric buses. Long term, it will save our schools money. Short term, it may save our children’s lives. Either way, it’s a switch that needs to happen as quickly as possible, and we can look to Blue Bird to lead the way to a brighter future.