Thinking About Electric School Buses?


Know the ins and outs of charging

Picture this: A school district didn’t plan ahead to provide adequate capacity for the district’s electric school bus (ESB) fleet. Now, that district is left revising an expensive new charging electrical infrastructure at its bus depot, leading to downtime, frustrated drivers, and rising costs down the road.

We’ve all heard the adage “Measure twice, cut once.” Ignoring this advice can have profound effects on any time- and cost-sensitive project, including the transition to an entirely new technology such as zero-emissions vehicles. Chances are the scenario above could have been avoided if the district had “measured twice” by partnering with experts to properly plan and execute their transition to battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

For all its benefits, fleet electrification is an extended journey. Charting the right path to electrification requires an investment not only in new electric vehicles and infrastructure but also in time spent in pre-purchase analysis and consultation. Not completing this upfront work could lead to unwanted and potentially expensive surprises when it’s time to deploy those new buses on their daily routes.

As fleets of all sizes pursue the opportunity to eliminate health and safety risks, and the environmental impact of conventional, fuel-powered vehicles, IC Bus hopes to be your trusted partner in the electrification of your school bus fleet. That’s why our Zero Emissions team has developed this white paper. It’s filled with expert advice to help school bus fleet operators understand the complexities of electrification and avoid common pitfalls during this transition—with a particular focus on charging.

Pick the right partner

The advantages of fleet electrification are profound. The examples of school bus fleets that have successfully begun to reap these benefits are becoming more and more common. Some advantages include lower maintenance costs, less pollution, and a quieter ride for drivers, students, and neighborhoods. As more districts and communities realize these benefits, more and more school districts are beginning their own journeys toward full electrification.

Meanwhile, substantial funding from national and state governments is generating interest and accelerating the adoption of ESBs by districts, large and small.

But there’s a risk when enthusiasm exceeds preparation. School districts and school bus fleet operators who are jumping at the chance to apply for ESB grants before carefully assessing their long-term operating needs – including infrastructure, charging, and training requirements – could face delays, extra costs, and other complications.

It’s crucial for fleet operators to start the process early and choose a trusted advisor for guidance through each step of this journey.

Based on its extensive work with school bus fleets, the Zero Emissions team at IC Bus has developed a comprehensive, three-phase process that helps fleet operators achieve a seamless transition to ESBs in the near-term and exceptional vehicle performance and return on investment (ROI) in the long-run. The three phases of this process are Consulting, Charging, and Customer Onboarding. This paper focuses on charging.

Know the timeline

It’s tempting for fleet operators to focus more time and attention on selecting and ordering their new ESBs than on identifying, planning, and installing the support systems, equipment and processes required to operate them. After all, electric school buses represent one of the most significant advances in the history of student transportation, and applying for and winning government grants is a critical step.

That said, the process of ordering and taking delivery of new ESBs can occur in a matter of months, whereas establishing an overarching, future-proof electrification strategy and building out the necessary charging infrastructure – “burying the wires” – can take two or more years. The key takeaway here: Charging requires the close attention of fleet operators from day one.

IC Bus can help fleet operators make the right decisions throughout this journey. The IC Bus Zero Emissions team and IC Bus® dealers work hand-in-hand with leading infrastructure service providers to help fleets understand their near- and long-term power requirements. With this knowledge, our team designs and implements systems and charging processes to meet those needs.

This journey begins with in-depth discussions with fleet representatives to answer key questions regarding their sustainability goals, electrification strategy, including plans and projections for expanded service area, especially in growing communities, and future fleet size. This research will ensure the upcoming infrastructure investment is sufficiently scalable to meet the fleet’s long-term needs rather than requiring additional construction just a few years down the road.

Choose the right EVSE

As more school bus fleets join the journey to electrification, it has become common for fleet operators to be approached directly by providers of electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE), also known as charging equipment. While it makes sense to understand the multiple equipment options available for a given project, the investment should only be made in coordination with the purchase of the battery electric school bus.

Remember “Measure twice, cut once?” Without carefully validating the interoperability and performance of your prospective EVSE, your fleet could end up with the most expensive outcome of all – equipment that doesn’t work and that triggers excessive costs.

To protect fleet operators from these and other surprises, IC Bus conducts intensive performance and interoperability studies of charging equipment and software available from an array of EVSE providers. Confirming interoperability requires several days of charging tests, conducted under multiple sets of conditions, on the exact model of ESB intended for deployment. This ensures that the fleets’ investment will provide the performance and reliability they need and have come to expect from IC Bus.

It’s also critically important to determine what type of bus depot layout is most cost effective and convenient for charging class 4-8 BEVs. This includes not only the spacing and the placement of the charging EVSE, but also the cord length of the charging EVSE dispenser to ensure that it can reach the charging port of your vehicle.

Involve your utility early

Next, IC Bus, school district, and fleet operations personnel should meet with representatives of the local energy provider to assess current and future energy loads and system capacity. To project future loads, the utility must understand the size of the electrified fleet, individual vehicle duty cycles, and associated charging requirements. The good news is that some utilities can help fleet operators identify local grants to help offset some of the costs of electrical upgrades.

Include the local utility early in this process – at least 24 months prior to vehicle delivery – to avoid unnecessary delays and added costs. For example, if the fleet’s projected energy load exceeds local grid capacity, the utility will likely need additional time to upgrade its systems and equipment. The utility might also want to confirm the fleet operator’s intent to fully transition to ESBs in order to justify its investment in additional grid capacity. Bottom line, the earlier the utility is involved in the planning process, the better the chance the necessary power will be available when needed.

It is also important for all parties to understand the utility’s rate structure. For example, if a demand charge threshold exists, the fleet could see much higher rates for electricity during peak periods. IC Bus and a qualified EVSE provider can work with the fleet operator to avoid peak rates through scheduled charging and other strategies.

Set yourself up for success

To properly assess charging equipment requirements, IC Bus collaborates with select EVSE providers in conducting comprehensive site surveys at customer bus garages and depots. The results of these surveys become the foundation for planned equipment upgrades and capacity expansions, including:

  • Likely charging locations;
  • Public charging capability;
  • Quantity and design/capacity of chargers;
  • Dispenser cable length, traffic flow, etc.;
  • Existing utility power infrastructure;
  • Utility capacity constraints and upgrades;
  • Current and future electrification needs;
  • Expansion of grid resilience; and
  • Backup power requirements.

To help design the right combination of equipment, software and charging protocols, project partners should also haveaccess to 12 months of electric bills for the garage or depot as well as a copy of the fleet operator’s energy contract, if available. This will help guide strategies to avoid demand threshold charges and perform vehicle charging at the most economical times and speeds.

Following the survey and related discussions, the EVSE provider should develop and present a site survey document detailing:

  • Site plan with locations of existing and new charging stations;
  • Recommended inventory of charging units and dispenser cabling;
  • Recommended charging schedules/protocols based on fleet uptime requirements; and
  • Estimates covering equipment purchase and installation.

IC Bus also works closely with leading infrastructure providers that can guide fleet operators through planning, permitting and construction so their projects come in on time and on budget.

Don’t skimp on software and connectivity

ESBs produce massive amounts of information, both on the road and when they’re charging. IC Bus strongly recommends that school bus operators leverage this invaluable data stream to ensure optimal vehicle performance and charging efficiency. While this software and connectivity adds to the total cost of vehicle acquisition, it more than pays for itself by enabling remote vehicle diagnostics, remote access to state-of-charge information for each vehicle, charging system alerts, scheduled charging, insight to driver operating efficiency and much more.

As with all things charging related, the goal of every fleet should be to avoid surprises. Connected chargers and on-vehicle telematics are proven to help avoid battery undercharge incidents at the beginning of the school day as well as breakdowns or other issues on the road. Additionally, EVSE that can be connected to the cloud can be used for scheduled charging to minimize charging costs during off-peak hours.