Let’s hop on the electric bus … in 2025

Last month the UCF board discussed a proposal to lease two electric buses. In the last two weeks, I have developed a clearer point of view on how the district should move forward with electric buses, following conversations with the vendor, further information provided by the administration, and listening to comments from our residents. Here are my observations.

  • Electric buses have several desirable features, including no tailpipe emissions and quiet operation
  • Presently, electric buses are 3x the purchase price vs. diesel. After state and federal grants, tax credits, and the tax shield of accelerated depreciation, electric buses have a net purchase price about 1.5x that of a diesel bus.
  • Electric buses have significantly lower operating costs, due to the energy advantage of electric powertrains and the fewer moving parts that can break or wear out.
  • Economics of electric buses are improving year over year, as scale and technical improvements lead to lower production costs, due largely to the significant cost decline in Li-Ion battery costs (see chart).

Right now, the total cost of ownership after grants and tax credits still favor diesel by ~15% vs electric.

Based on the districts financial analysis of the proposal, electric buses acquired today will cost us $50,000 more per bus on a total cost of ownership (TCO) basis over the 12 year period. This equates to 14% higher costs. And note that this cost disadvantage of electric is after receiving $175,000 in grants and tax incentives. If we factored in the cost of the incentives, which are borne collectively by all taxpayers, then the TCO is an extra $225,000+ per bus, or 71% more than the TCO of a diesel bus.

The TCO advantage of diesel is likely to narrow and eventually flip in favor of electric, as it has with passenger cars. When utilities like PECO develop V2G programs, that will further enhance electric bus net costs, with the side benefit of stabilizing the grid. The best estimates are that TCO tips in favor of electric around 2025.

Now or later?

Despite the current cost disadvantage of electric, some argue that we should move ahead now anyway. I have heard three reasonable arguments for this.

  • First, the district will learn about electric buses, which will position us to be ready to further expand the electric bus fleet in the future. This is a low-risk trial.
  • Second, drivers will like the new buses, which will help resolve current challenges with driver recruitment and retention.
  • Third, deploying electric buses moves toward our sustainability vision, and is the right thing to do from an environmental perspective.

These are valid points, but are arguments for moving to electric buses at some time. Instead, the critical question is whether to start the conversion to electric now, or wait until the economics improve.

When it comes to learning about electric buses, it is true that there is no substitute for experience. And until we dip our toe into the water, we won’t have first hand experience. But if we wait until 2025, industry experience will continue to accumulate in the interim at a rapid rate. Our potential vendor, Highland Electric, currently has ~150 buses in their fleet. By 2023, they will have ~400. Won’t the vendor know more (and be able to help us more rapidly learn) if we become a customer in 2025, when their fleet is 4x or 5x its current size? In addition, as other early adopter school districts deploy electric buses, best practices will be more readily available to us in 2025 than they are now. In fact the longer we wait, the more knowledge will be accumulated and the easier it will be adopt electric buses. “Fast follower” is often a better strategy than “leading edge”.

With respect to attracting and retaining bus drivers, reports from other districts indicate that bus drivers prefer to drive electric buses when given a choice. This is probably true, as electric buses are quieter, cleaner, and have the ‘cool’ factor. It is difficult to say what impact that might have on recruitment and retention, but I accept that there is likely a benefit there. But is that benefit worth the extra ownership cost of the vehicle? If our goal is the retain and attract drivers, I am confident that increasing wages is a simpler and more effective strategy than spending an extra $50,000 for an electric bus. If we need to retain drivers, let’s spend on driver wages, rather than paying it to a third-party leasing company.

Finally, the environmental accounting of electric buses might be less of a major win for sustainability than it appears on the surface. If we look at our 70 square miles of UCF district air, water, and land, electric is superior to diesel, as the diesel buses pollute our air and the noise disturbs our tranquility. But if we think less parochially, electric vehicles have many negative environmental externalities. The mining and refining of battery metals like lithium, zinc, and cobalt are very dirty operations, are carbon intensive, and often occur in nations with more lenient environmental regulations, resulting in significant long term environmental damage. And while electric motors are emission-free, the Pennsylvania electricity that goes into the bus, is about ~50% sourced from fossil fuels and ~30% from nuclear (which some environmentalists consider non-green). If you add up all of the environmental impacts, electric vehicles are not as clean as they first seem. And if we wait a couple years to start our fleet electrification, each bus will require fewer batteries, the metals in the batteries will be more sustainably sourced, and our electricity in Pennsylvania will be greener in origin. Once again, waiting would bring incremental benefits.

Wait for 2025

Electric buses are a promising development, and I am in favor of adopting them. And Dr. Akki is right to champion the cause and to drive us in that direction. However, I believe we should start the conversion to electric when the total cost of ownership tips in favor of our tax payers. This is likely to be in 2025.

By waiting, we will avoid spending an additional $250,000 of taxpayer money over the next 3 years on electric buses. We will also reduce our risk of adoption, by allowing best practices and learnings to accumulate and filter out from early adopters. Finally, we can use the interim period to develop a stronger fleet conversion strategy that is less reliant on third parties, retains more of the benefits for the District, and gets us to an all-electric fleet sooner.

What I have learned about electric school buses this week

At the September 12 school board work session, the administration brought forward a proposal to lease two electric school buses. The presentation left me with a number of questions, so I took to the internet, and did some homework. Here is what I learned:

  1. There is a compelling future state where electric school buses are a cleaner, quieter, and more economical form of transportation for our students
  2. Today, electrics buses are more expensive on a one-time basis and on a total cost of ownership basis than clean diesel buses
  3. Government incentives, currently targeted at disadvantaged districts, can tip the economic scales in favor of electric buses if the subsidies are large enough

The future state vision for electric buses seems compelling. Electric drive trains are more efficient to operate than diesel. This is especially true if the vehicle will operate at lower speeds, with frequent starts and stops, and with significant time spent idling. All three factors describe school bus routes, which have many stops, and which remain stopped for 20-30 seconds while kids board or disembark the vehicle.

In addition, school bus duty cycles are especially well-suited to electric. Bus routes are under the 100-130 mile range of current battery packs. Buses are parked and unused 15-20 hours a day (24 hours per day on weekends and in the summer) and so there is ample opportunity for recharging. And usage is predictable: buses run the same routes, at the same time every day. Compared to a personal vehicle, electric is much better suited for bus utilization patterns.

The costs of electric vehicle battery packs have been on a steady decline, and the efficiency of battery technology continues to improve. There are massive investments being made to scale up battery production, explore new materials, and drive battery efficiency in passenger vehicles. Many analysts predict that the cost per unit of power delivered will continue to drop, and eventually tip the scales in favor of electric powertrains vs. diesel. The optimists see this tipping point being reached in the next 3 to 5 years for buses. (We may already be at that point in passenger cars).

There is also a interesting revenue opportunity that is coming into play. Electric vehicle batteries, if properly equipped and configured, can serve as electric storage for the broader electric grid. By charging bus batteries during off-peak hours, buses could provide energy back into the grid during peak periods (6pm-10pm) and be paid by the electric utility for this vehicle-to-grid “V2G” service. This counter-cyclical charge and discharge function is particularly valuable to grid operators with substantial wind and solar assets to counter the ‘duck curve‘. There are school districts just starting to operate under “V2G” agreements and who get paid for it.

It remains to be seen how these trends and innovations play out, but it is possible to envision a scenario where electric buses are economical, without subsidies, within the next 3-5 years.

Today, however, the economics don’t yet work. Total cost of ownership for electric buses are presently 1.5 – 2.0X the cost of diesel, without subsidies. This difference comes from the 3X cost differential in the purchase price of the bus, offset by 30%-50% lower costs to operate the electric vehicle each year. A new electric bus presently costs around $350,000, vs. $125,000 for a diesel bus. The price difference is largely due to the cost of the Lithium Ion battery pack. For operating costs, there is a 2-3X advantage for electric vs diesel to power the vehicle for each mile. The size of this advantage depends on the local cost of electricity, which varies widely across the country. Maintenance costs for electric are also lower than diesel. For example, there is less wear on the electric vehicle’s brakes due to regenerative braking, and there is no engine or exhaust system to maintain and repair.

Some school districts are already going down the path of electrifying their school bus fleets. Examples include Montgomery County Maryland, Troy Illinois, and my hometown of Concord Massachusetts. These districts usually have secured generous local subsidies from government entities or local utilities, and/or have the support of tax payers to prioritize ‘green’ objectives such as reducing carbon emissions, lowering pollution, and contributing to the build-out of the electric bus infrastructure. Unfortunately for UCF, federal government EPA subsidies are presently targeted to tribal, rural, and low-income school districts. And I am not aware of any funds available through our local electric utility, PECO, under their Path-to-Clean program. (I know we have residents in our community who hold influential roles at PECO/Excelon. Please correct me if I am wrong!)

So what should we do? I see three options:

  1. Commit and lead by embarking on a fleet conversion, starting with two buses and putting in place the infrastructure and budget capacity to expand. Invest in V2G and other options to maximize our investment. Prioritize achieving our sustainability goals. Accept the additional costs in the short- and medium-term.
  2. Test and learn by approving the current proposal to lease two electric buses. This is a low-risk way to begin our journey, try out the technology, and get ahead of the curve. This comes at an estimated additional cost of $30k-$50k per bus, over the 12 year lease vs. staying exclusively with our clean diesel buses. There is no commitment to do more, and we evaluate progress annually for each subsequent bus purchase decision.
  3. Watch and wait until the economics improve. If battery costs decline, V2G becomes more mature, and if local subsidies (or a PECO partnership!) emerge, then we make the move when it becomes our best financial option. Let the economics tell us when to start the conversion to electric.

UCF Work Session 9/12/22

On this month’s school board agenda there are several items of significant interest. I am looking forward to the board’s discussion and hearing from residents on these subjects.

1. Update on school start time proposal

2. Proposal to lease 2 new electric school buses for 2023-2024, rather than replace aging buses with our usual diesel models

3. New design for relocated and expanded UHS tennis courts, additional parking between the high school and middle school, and new traffic flow on the middle and high school campus

4. Discussion of Policy 203 on immunizations and communicable diseases

Policy 203 – Immunizations & Communicable Diseases

On September 12, the UCFSD School Board will again discuss Policy 203, which outlines the District’s policy on Immunizations and Communicable Diseases.  This is an important policy of great interest to many in our district, given the events of the last two years.  I am grateful for the residents who have voiced their concerns about the policy and who have expressed an interest in the Board’s revisions.

To recap where we are in the revision process:

  • Policy 203 was last revised in August 2021, during the pandemic
  • In light of recent experience, court decisions, and widespread efforts to return to pre-pandemic protocols, the board revisited the policy in May 2022 (prior to my appointment in June) and planned to approve the policy in July 2022
  • Last month, the revisions were sent back to committee in light of questions that arose from board members, including myself, and from community members

In my view, there are three problems with the July 2022 version of Policy 203 that was proposed:

  1. The ‘authority’ section does not clearly articulate that UCF’s authority derives from State Regulations and legally-binding orders (not ‘guidance’) from State and County health departments
  2. The policy does not articulate with enough clarity the exemptions that are available
  3. The policy inappropriately elevates the COVID Health and Safety plan to be district policy

To address each of these problems, I think we should make the following changes to Policy 203:

  1. State that the authority for the policy is the School Code and legally binding orders from Federal, State, and Local agencies.
    • The requirements of Policy 203 come directly from the School Code (Title 28 Chapter 23.81-87)
      • Because the regulation is intended to prevent the spread of disease across the commonwealth, the requirements of the policy apply to all schools in the commonwealth, including public, private, parochial, and home-based
      • To prevent the spread of specific diseases, the state has mandated a consistent set of vaccinations and disease prevention practices. Therefore under normal circumstances there isn’t a role for the district to exercise local discretion or to deviate from what the state has mandated.
      • By explicitly referencing the school code as our primary authority, the Board will make it very clear that our intent is to adhere to what the State requires in the school code and any other legally binding orders that may be issued during an outbreak … nothing more and nothing less
  2. Explicitly include the School Code’s language on moral and ethical exemptions to immunizations.
    • The School Code Title 28 Chapter 23.84 clearly provides for an exemption “on the basis of a strong moral or ethical belief, which is similar in nature to a religious belief.”
    • There are residents in our district who object to vaccines based on strongly-held moral or ethical values that are not a product of religious belief, but are held with a similar intensity and seriousness of conviction
    • While individual citizens might like to see a different threshold (tighter or looser) for exemption, we are obligated follow the law and regulations as written 
    • Therefore, we should provide clarity and precision by utilizing the exact wording of the school code: “on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief”
  3. Remove the Health and Safety Plan (HSP) from Policy 203.
    • The stated purpose of the HSP was to enable the District to safely reopen schools, while supporting students and staff, providing an excellent educational experience, and helping end the pandemic
    • There are presently no mandatory requirements of parents/students contained in the current HSP, and there are no enforcement mechanisms for the actions that are recommended in the HSP. 
    • Administration sent an email on 8/26/22 to all parents stating that for this school year “We will be reverting back to a pre-pandemic response to illness and treat COVID in the same manner as we do other communicable diseases”. This indicates that the administration views the HSP as an outdated artifact rather than an active policy requiring adherence
    • In the future, if the district needs a mechanism to rapidly disseminate new requirements for future COVID variants or new infectious diseases, board policy 003 already provides that mechanism, for circumstances which would close any schools or jeopardize the safety or welfare of students or staff

Below is a summary of recent revisions to Policy 203 as well as my recommended changes:

I look forward to the discussion on Monday September 12, 2022. As always, I encourage residents to contact me with their comments.

Proud to be serving as Region B School Board Director

Last night, by a vote of 5-3, I was appointed as School Board Director for Region B of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District. Seven candidates applied and were interviewed by the board (video here, my interview begins at the 49:29 mark).

I am honored to return to the Board, where I previously served as a Director from 2014 through 2019. While our district provides an excellent education today, I believe there are many opportunities for us to improve. I am eager to get started and to make sure our schools are well-positioned to educate our next generation of students.

After the vote I heard from many in our district, with kind words about my appointment and expressing confidence in our future. I am humbled to have such great supporters around the district, and endeavor to earn the respect and confidence of all of our residents as I carry out my new responsibilities.

What do teachers think about our pay system?

What do teachers and the public think about having at least some of teacher pay related to student achievement?  According to an EducationNext poll:

Fifty-seven percent of the public supports “basing part of the salaries of teachers on how much their students learn,” while 31% opposes this idea. Among teachers, however, just 21% support merit pay and fully 73% are opposed.

Here is a policy paper from a group of public school teachers (part of the 21% minority) that outlines the incentive problems with step & lane.

Podcast!

The first UCFSD podcast is out!   Listen in as I interview Rick Hostetler, Supervisor of Buildings and Grounds.

Learn about:

  • What we do to keep our classrooms ‘healthy’
  • The UHS gymnasium fire of 2009
  • Community use of school facilities
  • How much the district spends monthly on electricity
  • The techniques used to keep the fields in good playing condition
  • How to community organizations can volunteer to spruce up the grounds

You can find the podcast here:

https://www.ucfsd.org/departments/communications/ucf-podcasts

What to do about Deciles?

After 12 years in UCFSD, ~95% of UHS graduates will continue their education at a college or university.  Selecting the right college is an important decision, and many students seek admission at some of the most competitive institutions in the country.

For many of our parents, admission to the best college is the prize for which sacrifices have been made, by both the student and the family.   It can carry tremendous emotional significance.  It often feels like the quality of child’s future opportunities depend on that admissions decision.  And let’s face it …. Competition for those slots is high.    As parents, we want our children to have every possible advantage in that competition.

A year ago, one of our parents observed that one of our policies might actually be creating a disadvantage for our students.   The culprit?  Our decile ranking policy.

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