Know the ABCs and DEFs of Electric Vehicles

As we continue to see a nationwide shift toward “clean transportation,” understanding the challenges and opportunities associated with the deployment of zero-emission buses (ZEB) has become increasingly vital in ensuring a successful transition. 

Backed by nearly $1 billion in grants, school districts buying electric buses now need to consider their next steps: re-designing depots for charging infrastructure.  

In a diesel world, districts can quickly fuel buses and park them as they like. Electric buses, however, need new charging stands, maintenance programs, and operation plans. These require re-development of depots and a re-evaluation of electrical capacity. 

“Buyers best know the EV ABCs – automakers, batteries and charging,” said Peter Meyerhofer, national practice lead, fleet conversion, at Kimley-Horn. “But it is the DEF – development, electricity and funding – that will make or break the school district’s transition.”


Development

The development is responsible for taking a project from conception to completion, Meyerhofer explains. This includes a number of set components or phases that include starting with a zero-emission plan – assessing the district’s current position and developing a long-term fleet management strategy, evaluation of existing and future facilities, and addressing the impact on current workforce. 

Other components to consider would include site selection for any new facilities, infrastructure, charging, and permitting with your local municipalities and utility providers.

“It is not one size, one shoe fits all kind of scenario when you are looking at technology assessment,” Meyerhofer said. “So the first step is understanding what their appetite and benefits are for each technology, developing that plan and really putting together a phased schedule of implementation.”

Electricity

According to Meyerhofer, electricity should be addressed as early on as possible. 

“You are going to need a higher capacity of electricity to handle the infrastructure for charging buses,” Meyerhofer said. “In some places that is not a big issue, in other places, it could be.”

He notes that some locations simply do not have the power required to provide the electricity needed for the bus conversion infrastructure. 

“I’m going through that with a transit fleet conversion client right now,” Meyerhofer said. “Where they will not have access to the necessary power for five years. That is not in line with their current plans, because the state requires you to be fully converted by 2040.”

This is where finding other alternatives like microgrids, battery energy storage, and even alternative ways to produce electricity through hydrogen become essential to a successful conversion.

Funding

Funding for electric school bus fleet conversion can come in the form of government grants, purchase incentives, utility provider funding, and even special financing options. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean School Bus Program is set to provide $5 billion over the next five years (FY 2022-2026) to replace existing school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models. 

“There are many different options, but they are all very similar in terms of qualifying components,” Meyerhofer said. “Our goal is to work with clients to make sure that we are successfully demonstrating those components in order to secure the best grants and funding opportunities available.”

Hydrogen vs. Electric 

When determining whether an all-electric, all-hydrogen, or mixed fleet is right for your district’s operations, coordination with the electric utility is critical, Meyerhofer explained.

“What we are seeing with many transit agencies is a mix of technologies for operational reasons. Electric has its limitations in terms of range, particularly if you are in excessively hot or cold areas. That drastically reduces your range by around 50 percent. With hydrogen, you don’t have those same issues and it tends to be more of just an upfront capital cost to address.”

Because of the constraints on the power utility provider, hydrogen fleets are sometimes the better choice for operators. 

Unfortunately, hydrogen can be limited in terms of availability as well and may become expensive to deliver efficiently. Meyerhofer noted that because hydrogen is not yet a mature market, owners need to be smart about who they work with. The product may work but the customer-support infrastructure may be lacking. 

Lastly, the costs of hydrogen vs. battery electric buses must be considered. In general, battery electric buses and associated infrastructure have a lower procurement cost at the trial or introductory stages, but become more expensive when scaling up, while hydrogen is more expensive to start and less costly to scale.

Parking Lot Renovations to Protect Charging Equipment and Re-Configure Parking Arrangements

“Most school districts do not have a lot of extra space sitting around for buses to park,” Meyerhofer said. “Unfortunately, whether you go electric or hydrogen with your zero-emission conversion, it requires more space for that infrastructure.”

When transitioning to electric, agencies not only need space for the chargers themselves, but for the switch gear, transformers, and power modules to supply the power to the chargers. This means efficient and effective allocation of space.

 “When we work with our clients, we to try to look at alternative parking layouts that are more efficient, whether it is electric or hydrogen,” Meyerhofer said. “Sometimes it can go from a traditional aisle / herringbone layout to a stack parking layout, which can change operations but is not uncommon.”

Regulations and Permitting Hurdles

In terms of environmental clearance, every location in the country is different from a utility standpoint. Every state could have their own permitting requirements related to water quality, energy, onsite water treatment, etc. Oftentimes a facility is grandfathered in to outdated codes, but once full-scale improvements begin, adhering and upgrading to current standards becomes imperative.

“That is when it is important to rely on local partners,” Meyerhofer said. “Engage your local partners that do local site development or commercial work to understand those local requirements for facility fleet conversion.”

Meyerhofer also noted that while increased opportunities for access to funding and resources continue to become available, the transition from fossil fuel buses to electric buses is not always easy. 

“Districts may need to change their operations and schedules to accommodate range, limitations, and charging requirements, and may need to adjust maintenance schedules and operator training protocols,” Meyerhofer said. “And despite this surge in funding there can be some substantial financial considerations. However, while complex, the transition is certainly accomplishable and districts all over the country continue to take the plunge.”

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