School Buses in North America Are Going Green

School Buses in North America Are Going Green

Today, most of the school buses operating in the US and Canada comprise diesel, compressed natural gas/liquefied natural gas, or conventional gasoline-powered models. In recent years, however, this has begun to change, as several major manufacturers have unveiled and promoted new electric and hybrid school buses.

School Districts in US & Canada Invest in Greener Bus Fleets

With the help of funds from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, a number of school districts across the US have invested in new electric and hybrid buses since 2017. As part of the first phase of Michigan’s “Volkswagen Settlement Beneficiary Mitigation Plan”, state officials announced intentions to invest $13 million in new school buses, with $3 million specifically allocated to electric buses and charging stations. Similarly, Maryland allocated funds from the settlement toward developing the state’s electric charging station network and investing in new electric school buses, while the state of New Jersey proposed a $10 million electric school bus purchasing program in May 2019.

Across the northern border, Canada’s Keolis placed an order for 12 electric Type C school buses from The Lion Electric Company in December 2018. With the purchase of these school buses – which will be deployed in Montreal – Keolis hopes to reduce CO2 emissions by 3,864 tons over the course of the buses’ usable lives.

As more school districts in the US and Canada become more acquainted with electric and hybrid buses, demand for these machines will surge.

Why Hybrid & Electric School Buses?

Electric and hybrid buses are particularly well suited to both student and public transportation applications because they operate most effectively on short, fixed routes. In the US, the average school bus travels just 66 miles per day, roughly half of the average distance travelled by transit buses. Electric and hybrid models also require conveniently located charging stations to operate effectively – so the facilities where school buses are housed overnight are ideal locations for charging stations.

The use of electric and hybrid school buses is expected to increase in the US and Canada because these models:

  • are more environmentally-friendly than conventional school buses
  • provide students with quieter riding experiences and better air quality
  • have significantly lower fuel and maintenance costs

Additionally, new-generation electric and hybrid school buses have overcome historical concerns about their range, ability to accelerate, charge times and reliability. Many recent models incorporate innovative performance technologies that improve on past deficiencies. In October 2018, for example, Proterra and Daimler’s Thomas Built subsidiary unveiled the Saf-T-Liner eC2 electric school bus, which:

  • has a charge time of just three hours
  • features a Proterra battery pack with proprietary battery thermal management properties to ensure optimal performance and safety
  • includes active and passive battery safety systems

For its part, Bluebird’s Micro Bird G5 Electric school bus – introduced in late 2017 – has a maximum range of about 100 miles, considerably greater than the average distance travelled by a school bus in a day.

Innovations in Charging Technology Make Electric Buses More Convenient Than Ever

Bus manufacturers – often with partners in other industries – have also invested heavily in developing new simplified electric and hybrid bus charging technologies that can reduce charging times, making them more competitive with conventional models.

Siemens, for example, is developing innovative high-power charging (HPC) stations that have a top-down pantograph, can charge batteries in four to six minutes, and greatly simply the overall charging process. With these new stations:

  1. The charging process begins when the electric bus arrives at the station and a Wi-Fi communication is established.
  2. After the operator activates the handbrake, the charging process is begins automatically as the four-pole pantograph connects with the contact rails on the buses roof.
  3. Once the driver releases the handbrake, the charging process stops and the pantograph will be automatically disconnects.

For Large-Scale Electric Bus Adoption, Important Hurdles Must Still be Cleared

Despite the fact that new electric and hybrid buses offer many advantages, the manufacturers of these vehicles still face a number of key challenges. First and foremost, electric buses cost between $200,000 and $400,000, while a diesel school bus typically costs between $100,000 and $150,000. This presents a major challenge for many school districts, forcing them to rely on external sources of funding. Electric and hybrid school buses also require these districts to invest in charging stations.

In the near term, producers of electric and hybrid models will continue to face stiff competition from CNG/LNG school buses, which are more environmentally friendly than diesel and gasoline buses. Because the US and Canada have enjoyed low natural gas prices in recent years, CNG/LNG models will continue to be appealing, economical options for many school districts.

Despite these factors, the shift toward electric and hybrid school buses will continue as concerns about climate change grow, electric and hybrid model prices come down, and manufacturers introduce more capable models and new charging technologies.

To Learn More About Global Bus Trends

Need more information? To learn about past and projected bus market trends on both a geographic and product basis, and for analysis of major market participants, check out Global Buses, a new study from The Freedonia Group. This study covers:

  • motor coaches
  • transit buses
  • school buses (Type A, B, C, and D models)
  • all other buses, which tend to be smaller vehicles, often based on medium-duty truck chassis, used in special applications such as airport, hospital, hotel, and senior citizen transport, and as support vehicles for schools

The study presents historical data for 2008, 2013, and 2018; and forecasts for 2023 and 2028. Breakouts include demand by product type, total production, and net exports in units.

About the Author:

Gleb Mytko is an Industry Analyst at The Freedonia Group, where his work covers the global automotive, transportation, and machinery markets.