Monthly Archives: September 2022

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.