When Colorado’s West Grand School District rolls out its first electric school bus this fall, Chris Michalowski thinks it might be the thing that flips the switch on his community’s interest in electric vehicles.

“If you see your kids get on an electric school bus, it opens your eyes,” says Michalowski, power advisor for Mountain Parks Electric in Granby, Colorado, which helped finance the bus. “People start thinking that driving an electric vehicle is maybe something they can do. I call the bus a big, roving billboard for EVs. Hopefully, it wins people over.”

As electric cooperatives increasingly look for ways to help their local school districts buy electric buses, there is a growing sense that the investment could lead to more than just the immediate—and substantial—benefit of putting kids on cleaner, quieter vehicles. Co-op leaders see the buses as a way to educate the public about the broader advantages of electric transportation while creating new demand for electricity.

It’s also a way to engage children as they prepare to become the car drivers—and co-op members—of tomorrow, says Brian Sloboda, NRECA’s director of consumer solutions. “These kids are always going to remember being the first generation to ride to school on an electric bus. They’re going to be comfortable with EVs.”

The buses also could even help ensure that co-ops in remote rural communities are still around to serve those future members, says Travis Mathes, manager of member services and government relations at Lewis County Rural Electric Cooperative in Lewistown, Missouri.

“Electric buses represent major load growth,” Mathes says. “This is a very rural farming community. We have no big-box stores, no McDonald’s, and not a single stoplight. I’m not likely to draw in a big business or distribution center here. But five electric school buses would be like a small housing subdivision for us.”

VW settlement funds

Lewis County REC is among several co-ops and school districts lobbying their states to spend part of the Volkswagen settlement money to buy electric school buses. In 2016, Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion to settle allegations that it cheated for years on emissions inspections performed on many of its diesel vehicles. State governments received a portion of that settlement money, which they are supposed to spend on programs that reduce vehicle emissions.

North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives, the statewide association and G&T, has already applied for VW settlement funding from its state to help finance electric school buses. As NRECA President Curtis Wynn pointed out at the association’s March annual meeting in New Orleans, school districts have the largest fleets of diesel vehicles in many co-ops’ service areas, where the number of municipal buses may be small or nonexistent.

The biggest barrier to electrifying school bus fleets remains the high price tag. The buses generally cost at least $300,000, more than double a traditional diesel model. As with any new technology, prices are expected to come down significantly as demand rises and manufacturers increase production. But in the meantime, most districts need outside help to afford them.

VW settlement funds paid for $250,000 in state grants to West Grand School District, which will deploy a 78-passenger Bluebird All American electric school bus with a 120-mile range next school year. Mountain Parks Electric provided the remaining $70,000 for the bus using a portion of its members’ unclaimed capital credits, which it dedicates to educational purposes. Power supplier Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association also contributed.

Michalowski says the co-op looks at the bus—which cost the school district nothing—as a pilot project and plans to share data on how it performs in cold weather with other schools and town leaders. The town has free public buses that shuttle people to and from local ski resorts—buses that could be replaced with electric versions.

“Hopefully, this first school bus will get them excited about the technology,” he says.

‘You need the early adopters’

In North Dakota, West Fargo Public Schools began using the state’s first electric school bus last August, thanks to a state grant and $40,000 in contributions from Cass County Electric Cooperative and G&T Minnkota Power Cooperative.

The school district wants to compare the operating cost of the electric bus against the cost of diesel buses over a 5-year period, says Brad Redmond, the schools’ director of transportation. One of the key questions is how well the bus’s wiring and components will withstand winter “road grime,” a combination of salt and sand that is highly corrosive, he says.

“It’s exciting for the kids, and the feedback I’ve gotten from the community has been nothing but positive,” Redmond says. “They see the health benefits of a bus that isn’t giving off the emissions that the diesel buses do. When you’re in a lineup at school, especially when the buses are idling, it’s very noticeable.”

The bus has already proven valuable as an advertisement for electric vehicles, says Chad Brousseau, manager of energy services at Cass County Electric Cooperative in Fargo.

“We’ve had this bus at a lot of events, including a governors’ convention in the state, driving governors around,” he says. “I think it’s absolutely making people look at EVs more favorably.”

NRECA’s Sloboda says it’s wise for co-ops and school districts that are early adopters of electric school buses to get funding from state grants and other sources so they won’t risk a huge amount of money as they test the buses’ effectiveness. He advises co-ops and districts to act cautiously and replace their fleets one bus at a time over several years.

“If you wait, the prices are going to come down,” he says. “But if no one buys them now, they won’t go forward. You need the early adopters.”

Driving demand

Jeffrey Koza, a Blue Bird school bus dealer at Colorado/West Equipment Inc. in Henderson, believes it’s parents that are driving the demand for electric school buses because they want their children to ride in the clean, quiet vehicles.

The buses also are expected to save school districts tens of thousands of dollars on maintenance and operations. Over the 15-year life of a typical school bus, a district would save $78,000 on diesel fuel costs alone, says Lewis County REC’s Mathes. And that doesn’t include the savings from eliminating the cost of oil changes and replacing internal combustion engine parts, he says.

Still, Koza adds, most school districts can’t justify spending that much public money on the initial cost of the buses unless they get VW settlement funds, state grants, and help from co-ops or other utilities.

“Without that grant money, I don’t believe at this point anybody would choose this simply because it is so expensive,” he says. “The risk of spending tax dollars on something that may or may not work is just too great for a school district without that help.”

Still, mainstream school bus companies like Blue Bird Corp. and Thomas Built Buses are wading deeper into the electric bus market. Blue Bird is expected to build about 300 electric buses this year. That’s not many when you consider that the company will manufacture about 11,000 buses in 2020, but it’s a threefold increase over last year, Koza says.

“The electric buses are going everywhere around the country, although about 70% are headed to California,” he says. The Golden State has invested millions to bring around 200 electric buses to its school districts.

Avoiding pitfalls

Co-ops that are trying to electrify their local school bus fleets need to talk to school officials about exactly how the buses will be used so they can avoid potential pitfalls, Sloboda says.

“You may be able to handle your everyday routes back and forth to school with a 120-mile range, but you’re probably not going to the state football championship or the band competition that’s far away,” he says. “If you try to shoehorn electric buses into every bus barn, people are going to have some very negative experiences, and it won’t be the technology’s fault. Look for the right fit.”

New Hampshire Electric Cooperative has hired a consultant to reach out to local school districts to gauge whether any of them would be willing to partner with the co-op to bring in electric school buses. The state has VW settlement money that the districts could tap into to help pay for the vehicles.

In addition to increasing demand for electricity, the electric school bus batteries could help the co-op store power for use during peak energy periods in the summer, when the buses are sitting idle, says Brian Callnan, vice president of power resources and access at the Plymouth, New Hampshire, co-op. That could help keep down electric rates for everyone, he says.

“It could be a triple win: good for the co-op, good for the schools, and good for the community,” Callnan says, adding that a decision about whether to proceed will likely be made this summer.

In Missouri, Lewis County REC brought in an electric school bus from Illinois and held a special event in Edina so the community could take a look. The Knox County R-1 school district is interested in buying one, and school officials and the co-op are urging the state to use some of its VW settlement funds to help schools buy the vehicles.

“The bus drivers were very apprehensive at first,” Mathes says. “After test-driving the bus, they totally changed their minds. By the end of the demonstration, they were arguing about who would get to drive the first electric bus when the school gets one.”

One of the biggest advantages, Mathes says, is the bus is so quiet that drivers can hear what the kids are doing and saying—an impossible task over the roar of a diesel engine.

“It’s an opportunity for the driver to have full control,” he says. “They can hear what’s going on, and they can combat bullying.”

As co-ops try to find ways to bring electric buses to their communities, the original co-op pioneers—Dakota Electric Association of Farmington, Minnesota, and Great River Energy of Maple Grove, Minnesota—have collected two years’ worth of data that they are eager to share.

The co-op and the G&T partnered with Schmitty & Sons, a school bus and charter transportation company, on a pilot program to bring an electric school bus into service in the 2017–18 school year. The bus battery is charged with 100% wind energy from Great River.

So far, the bus has saved $12,000 a year in maintenance and fuel costs, says David Ranallo, director of culture, communications, marketing and member services at Great River Energy.

“We’re showcasing that it works in a colder climate with rural routes,” he says. “This bus has a 100-mile range, and it goes 80 miles a day with 98 stops. It’s never come close to running out of power. Range anxiety was the biggest initial concern, but when you push on the brakes, it recharges the battery.”

Co-ops throughout the country reach out regularly to Great River Energy and Dakota Electric to see how their pilot project is going, Ranallo says.

“There’s a ton of interest, absolutely, but I think the biggest barrier is still the cost,” he says. “What we’ve learned is that this is the perfect application for school buses. All we need is for the cost to come down to become more in parity with diesel buses. Then it will be a no-brainer for all of us.”

Mathes believes it’ll take just one to start the trend.

“If we can break the ice in Missouri, we can get one electric bus, and then we can keep going and get 10,” he says.

That’s just part of his overall strategy to bring EVs to northeastern Missouri. Mathes has also been talking to Ford about the possibility of bringing the first F-150 electric pickup truck in the Midwest to Lewis County REC when it’s ready next year.

“If I could get 25 farmers to buy an electric F-150 pickup, it would be a game-changer,” he says. “The whole EV thing excites me. I just see it as a tremendous opportunity. I’m more excited about this than anything in my 20-plus years with the co-op.”