Electric school bus by a ferris wheel

Electric school bus pilot in Lakeville shows early results

It's been five years since the Midwest's first electric school bus arrived in Minnesota. We reached out to Great River Energy's Jill Eide, commercial industrial and agricultural strategist at the electric cooperative, to learn about the early results from the Lakeville pilot.

What was the goal of the pilot project? What were you hoping to learn?

We wanted to showcase the electric school bus technology in our climate and document the real-life economics and emissions reduction.

Was this the first electric school bus pilot in the Midwest?  

Yes, when the bus went into service for the 2017-18 school year, it was the first bus in our region. Since our launch, there have been a few more added in Minnesota and hopefully we’ll see that grow exponentially with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Volkswagen Settlement funding

Who was involved in creating this pilot project?

This pilot project is a joint venture with Dakota Electric Association (a member-owner cooperative of Great River Energy) and Schmitty & Sons Bus Company (school bus provider for Lakeville Area Schools).

What manufacturer did you buy the electric bus from? Were there local options?

We considered a couple of different bus manufacturers including one here in Minnesota and another U.S.-based manufacturer, but ultimately went with the Canadian bus manufacturer Lion. At the time we felt they had the most experience operating in a cold climate and were able to accommodate a lead time to deliver the bus for the 2017-18 school year.

The pricing five years ago was approximately $300,000 for the electric school bus, based on the model and features we chose. We went with a Clipper Creek charger that matched the on-board charger of the bus at 19.2 kW for an additional cost of approximately $3,500 in materials.

These are some tangible numbers, but I think it’s important to note so much has changed over the past five years with the technology, availability, and pricing that it’s important for future electric school bus owners and operators to conduct due diligence based on route needs to get the best-fit bus with accurate pricing.

What was the reaction from the drivers? The students?

The bus driver with most seniority at Schmitty & Sons had the first option to drive the electric school bus and she took it! The driver loves it because it’s comfortable, handles well, and is a quieter and smoother ride. And the kids love it because they don’t have to shout over the diesel engine to hear each other or the radio. 

Was there special training or education for the drivers?

There absolutely was some special training/education for the driver to understand the minor differences on how to operate the bus, such as the benefits of regenerative breaking on the range. However, overall, the electric school bus operates very similarly to an internal combustion bus, so it was an easy transition. 

Was there education for the students to understand more about the difference between the electric bus and a regular bus?

We did not plan for direct education for the students, but the kids and parents are very perceptive, and the conversation grew organically with the bus driver.

What was the timeline for the project?

Our timeline started in 2016 with the Big Idea of getting an electric school bus in our service area. It started with scouting who and what kind of school bus operations we provided power to and then evolved into a search and review of electric school bus manufacturers to understand pricing, range options, and order lead time. We received the Lion bus in the summer of 2017 which gave enough time to complete the basic training and conduct practice routes for the upcoming school year.

How did you navigate the Covid-19 pandemic?

I think this was tricky for everyone. The electric school bus provides routes for the Lakeville School District. During the 2020-21 school year the bus was dedicated to the school where learning was in-person. As the school district pivoted to remote learning, the bus route changed to focus on childcare. So, the bus stayed operational throughout the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic also caused some complications with international parts shipping. There were a couple times our replacement parts were held up in border customs which delayed maintenance repairs. However, now with Lion opening operations in the U.S., I suspect this issue is nearly resolved. 

Were there additional costs you weren’t expecting?

Would it be a successful pilot project without unexpected costs? One thing we weren’t anticipating was the international shipping costs and longer delivery times. I mention delivery time because in some cases it leads to the bus being out of service until a repair is made. But with Lion opening operations in the U.S., we expect this issue will continue to decrease. 

What have you learned?  

The biggest lesson we learned occurred in years one and two, and that was how to plan for general maintenance to minimize down time for the electric bus. This caused the bus to be out of service significantly more than its diesel counterpart. This was maybe the biggest part of the learning curve of new technology for us. In year three, as we figured out a system, the outage time dropped nearly 75%. In years three and four, and on pace for this year, we are looking at bus availability of 95% or better. 
 
Our 100-mile battery range and 20kW charger was an excellent combination to balance charging and range needs, and purchase and installation costs of both. A larger fast charger likely would have required a transformer upgrade but in this case was unnecessary with overnight charging and a couple hours in the afternoon on the 20kW charger. 

What surprised you?  

This electric school bus is a piece of technology in every sense — a tune-up can come from a software upgrade! Just like a cellphone, you plug it in and keep up to date with software updates to optimize performance. 
 
Another thing that surprised us was the level of interest from surrounding communities and organizations interested in learning more about the bus, and all the invitations we received for the bus to participate in parades and events throughout the year. 

What’s next? Is Lakeville planning to add more electric school buses?

With the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Volkswagen Settlement Phase II coming up, we are planning to engage with our members across the state to see how we can best partner to enable adoption of electric school buses and answer all the questions about charging. 

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