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Will Electric School Buses Cultivate the Next Generation of EV Drivers?

North Carolina’s Thomas-Built Electric School Buses provide quiet, emission-free transportation to school systems across the country.

Dan Carney, Senior Editor

October 11, 2021

4 Min Read
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A Thomas Built Buses Jouley electric bus plugs in for a charge.Thomas Built Buses

While their parents may be weighing the pros and cons of electric vehicle ownership, more students are getting daily exposure to EV technology thanks to school systems’ conversion to electric school buses.

The buses that are reaching schools’ fleets now are Jouley buses, by Thomas Built Buses. They still hold 81 passengers, like the gas buses, and they have an electric driving range of 138 miles from their 226-kilowatt-hour battery packs. For comparison, a Tesla Model S has a 95-kWh battery pack.

The Jouley’s 295-horsepower electric motor accelerates the bus to 60 mph in 49 seconds and to a top speed of 65 mph.

Charging time on a 60 kW DC fast charger is between two and three hours, according to Thomas. Significantly, the pack is liquid cooled, and the charger is bi-directional, so the buses can be used to provide power to the grid for load balancing or to provide electricity during power outages. This capability is important to power utilities that may help underwrite the cost of purchasing the Jouley, which lists for $350,000 rather than the $150,000 of a diesel-powered bus.

School districts across the country are launching pilot programs to gain familiarity with electric buses. These test programs are in Virginia, Michigan, Massachusetts, Alaska, and Indiana.

Related:80-Amp Ford Charge Station Pro Cuts Lightning Recharge Time by 40 Percent

“Within the next three to five years we start seeing a transition from today, which is customers saying, ‘Let me run two or three or four vehicles and get used to it and understand what I’m dealing with here,’ to then, they start making their entire purchase on zero-emission vehicles,” John O’Leary, CEO of Thomas Built Buses’ parent company Daimler Trucks North America said in an appearance on CNBC.

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Montgomery County, Maryland, is already sold on the idea, with an order for 326 Jouleys for the next four years. The county says it will replace its entire fleet of 1,400 combustion-powered buses within 14 years, as the current buses age out.

The county’s plunge into running buses that cost less to operate but more to purchase is being assisted by Highland Electric Transportation, a company that buys EVs and leases them to municipalities. The project was further aided by an $817,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Association, which helps offset the purchase cost of vehicles that is critical at this early stage of mass deployment.

“I figured that at some point electric bus prices would fall enough to make it affordable, but this deal makes it affordable now,” said Todd Watkins, Transportation Director for Mongomery County Public Schools.

Under the lease agreement, Highland and its project partners, including Thomas Built Buses, Proterra, and Annapolis-based American Bus, will electrify all five of MCPS’ bus depots, supplying the electric school buses and charging infrastructure along with services including managed charging.

Highland will purchase buses manufactured in North Carolina by Thomas Built Buses, which will be supplied and serviced by American Bus. Both companies have been long-time trusted suppliers and partners for the MCPS Department of Transportation. 

As mentioned above, the electric buses will also be expected to lend their batteries to deliver stored electricity to the local electricity markets, interconnected through local utility Pepco, to help the community integrate renewable energy and support power grid resilience.

Dominion Energy’s electric bus program in Virginia provides 50 electric school buses to 15 public school districts for its first phase. In Michigan, Ann Arbor and Roseville Public Schools are operating six Jouleys in partnership with local utility DTE Energy, which will also conduct a Vehicle to Grid (V2G) study of the energy efficiency and environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

Jouley Delivery.jpeg

The Massachusetts City of Beverly and Beverly Public Schools bought a Jouley in partnership with Highland Electric Transportation, a solutions provider for electric school buses. The plan here, too, is to test a V2G strategy with a local utility provider, National Grid.

Tok Transportation is operating Alaska’s first battery-electric school bus in partnership with the Alaskan Energy Authority, and the Monroe County Community Schools and Delphi Community Schools in Indiana both received their first Thomas Built electric school buses.

“Electric school buses provide an innovative, sustainable solution that will help the environment, protect children’s health, make the electric grid stronger, and free up money for our schools," said Dan Weekley, Vice President of Innovation Policy and Development, Dominion Energy. “We’re excited to see these buses start to arrive in the Commonwealth and we look forward to working with school districts across Virginia to get this new technology on the roads.”

And maybe their experience riding electric buses will also help get future EV drivers on the road, once they reach Driver's Ed class.

About the Author(s)

Dan Carney

Senior Editor, Design News

Dan’s coverage of the auto industry over three decades has taken him to the racetracks, automotive engineering centers, vehicle simulators, wind tunnels, and crash-test labs of the world.

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