Aside from the inevitable cacophony from six dozen kids, the newest school bus making its rounds in a suburb of Minnesota’s Twin Cities hums quietly through the streets.
How so? It’s electric.
The unique vehicle is the centerpiece of a pilot project sponsored by a co-op, its G&T, and the bus contractor for Lakeville Independent School District 194. Among the aims is to see whether an electric bus can handle cold weather. But at the end of the school day, Lakeville’s new electric bus is driving home a larger lesson about beneficial electrification.
“Electricity is getting cleaner and greener each and every year,” says Gary Connett, director of member services & demand response at Great River Energy, the Maple Grove, Minnesota-based G&T and one of the bus project partners. “It’s starting to surpass the efficiency of other energy sources, especially in the transportation sector.”
Dakota Electric Association, the Farmington-based co-op whose more than 105,000 meters include Lakeville Independent School District 194, supplies the power to recharge the bus overnight through Great River Energy’s Revolt program. That means 100 percent of the charging current comes from clean renewable sources, in this case principally wind.
Connett is a longtime proponent of everything the electric bus stands for. He’s been advocating for demand-response programs for some four decades, and as those efforts have morphed over the past few years, he’s emerged as a national thought leader on tapping and storing renewable energy. In the summer of 2016, when NRECA joined Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association, and a host of individual utility systems, industry vendors, regulators, and advocacy groups to form the Community Storage Initiative, Connett was elected its chair.
‘Negawatts’ No More
Electric consumers tend to see batteries in conventional terms: the one beneath the hood that turns a car’s starter or the kind you load into flashlights. But Connett says if people could start to see energy storage possibilities more broadly, the entire electric grid could end up making better use of renewable generating resources, storing the cleanest energy as a way to shave daily peak demands on conventional baseload sources.
“There are times in the spring and fall when Great River Energy’s resource portfolio can be up to 60 percent renewable because of wind,” he says. “But when it’s coming to you in the middle of the night, there’s not many uses for it. So the question becomes, how can we best store that energy?”
High-efficiency controllable water heaters are one way. Electric vehicles, including school buses, are another. More familiar types of batteries will have their place as well, Connett predicts, but the potential offered by hot water and electric vehicles should not be overlooked or undersold.
“We can put batteries in substations someday, and likely we will,” he says. “But in the meantime, there’s a pretty simple battery that’s in every home today, and that’s the water heater.”
Great River Energy controls about 70,000 electric water heaters on their member co-ops’ systems, activating them with the ample overnight winds then storing the energy as hot water for use throughout the day.
“The idea that we are promoting is the beneficial side of electricity,” says Keith Dennis, senior director of strategic initiatives in NRECA’s Business & Technology Strategies group.
Dennis helped coin the term “emiciency” last year to describe a new way of appraising a device based not on the amount of energy it uses but on its overall emissions impact. Electric-powered devices that can tap into clean renewable generation have high emiciency.
“Emissions efficiency is kind of a wonky metric that is really important to us,” Dennis says.
Think tanks, regulators, and even some environmental lobbies have started to take notice, he adds.
A quarter-century ago, groups like the efficiency-focused Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder, Colorado, mounted a campaign for what the group called “negawatts.” The cleanest and cheapest kilowatt-hour, the thinking went, was the one utilities didn’t have to generate in the first place. More and greater efficiencies on the energy demand side, the institute argued, would reduce or eliminate the need to boost supply.
“Now you see the Rocky Mountain Institute talking about ‘flexi-watts’ and looking for flexible demand times,” Dennis says. “The difference is that the technologies have become so efficient and carbon emissions have been decreasing so quickly on the generation side.”
All of that may sound familiar to co-op old-timers who’ve been working for decades to flatten load curves and improve load factors.
“Co-ops have been doing this for a long time,” Dennis agrees. “We’ve had to manage loads, and we’ve gotten very good at it. And all this stuff we’ve been doing just becomes more valuable, and we can build on it.”
So where does an electric school bus in a suburb 20 miles south of the Twin Cities fit in to the equation?
“You begin to see that there are lots of things around us that can be used to store energy,” Dennis says. “These are practical things that people need in their lives. Everybody needs hot water, everybody needs to drive, the kids need to get to school. People are interested in energy storage, and these ideas are part of the storage solution.”
The eLion electric bus, manufactured in Canada, costs about three times as much as a conventional diesel model. But Dakota Electric and Great River Energy each kicked in $125,000, bringing the cost within reach for the school district’s bus contractor, Schmitty & Sons.
And the eLion starts saving money as soon as it joins the fleet. Reduced maintenance and operations costs result in savings predicted to reach $12,000 per bus, per year. The body is a composite, ending problems with rust, while the single-piece roof means leaks cease to be a problem.
Then there are the emissions reductions. Each bus keeps an estimated 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released each year, according to Great River Energy’s calculations. Recharging on an 80-amp, 240-volt charger for about five hours a night gives the bus a 100-mile range the next day, easily covering the national school bus daily average of 66 miles.
Joe Miller, Dakota Electric’s public relations director, says the eLion was turning heads across the state even before it started picking up school kids in Lakeville.
“It went on a tour of the co-ops in Minnesota last summer, and everything was positive,” he says. “It was a major news event around here, and every TV station in the Twin Cities has covered the electric school bus. There’s a lot of interest in it, and that will continue to grow.”
Members may not realize it, but every time they see the eLion roll down the street, it’s a silent lesson in the concepts of beneficial electrification and emiciency.
“We talk about electricity as the only energy source that gets cleaner every day,” says David Ranallo, marketing & member services manager at Great River Energy. Electric vehicles are just “another step in the door to get people thinking that.”
Jane Siebenaler, Dakota Electric’s business accounts executive and a leading force behind the eLion’s arrival in Lakeville, sees the electric school bus as the start of something big.
“Our intention is that this won’t be a one-hit wonder,” Siebenaler says. “Our hope is that this will create more momentum. From the initial exposure, it certainly looks like it will take off. We think everything about this technology is pointing to a very strong future in electric school buses.”