Ten Tips on Electrifying your Bus Fleet

Electric School Bus

The electric bus world is growing rapidly, with more purchase orders being placed for them weekly, massive federal funding for them being proposed, and Manufactures announcing new manufacturing plants.

If you are working to keep up in this complex field, and also to learn to be an anti-racist ally, so am I. If only one of those describes you, I hope you keep reading regardless! Bus passengers are disproportionately people of color. They get the sickest from diesel exhaust while having the least access to health care. As a white person, I’ve learned I tend to center myself and my privileges unconsciously. I can do better. Other white leaders in this field have expressed similar determination.

I am Alison Wiley here in Oregon, writing primarily for bus fleets, though people from government, nonprofits, consulting firms and the clean-tech industry read these articles as well. Why do I do this? I love buses, the people who ride and operate them, and our shared climate. And because e-buses improve the health of all the above. Most bus fleets are new to electric, and my aim is to support those fleets in moving forward.


These are my top ten tips on electrifying a bus fleet, designed largely for bus organizations but also for the utilities, state agencies and advocates that play key roles in the transition to electric.

1. Be obsessed with learning about zero emissions buses (ZEB’s). They are complex and not easy to deploy, so information and collaboration are your friends. Don’t ingest false myths, or assume ZEB’s are only for the big cities (they’re not). Your goal is to prepare for a pilot project, or if you’re already doing a pilot, to build a plan to scale up to a full fleet transition. Test-drive some ZEB’s if possible. Bookmark a few dozen websites; register for newsletters; put ZEB’s on agendas for meetings. Build your internal business case for them. Get smarter every day on the ZEB ecosystem.

2.) Weave diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into your ZEB project from the start. Do this by bringing the right people in your community to the table, such as nonprofits that represent people of color and/or low income people. Listen to their thoughts and concerns. Don’t ask the one person of color in your organization to carry this flag. Resist the urge to skip right now to #3. Why should you follow my advice on this?

Of many reasons, I’ll offer three: a.) bus passengers (without whom no bus-related jobs would exist) are disproportionately people of color;  b.) these passengers are breathing toxic diesel fumes far more than the general population, while getting less access to health care, and they deserve to be heard; c.) without inclusive discussion early on, you can be blindsided later by stakeholders angry to learn of expensive ZEB purchases when their basic transportation needs are going unmet. Which is a reality for many people, despite your best efforts at route-planning. Try to not be defensive about that. 

You can do this! Don’t just check the DEI box by sending an FYI email to someone. Rather, collaborate early on.

3.) Learn about ZEB charging infrastructure, often called EVSE for electric vehicle supply equipment. EVSE is less fun, sexy and charismatic than the electric buses themselves (don’t spend all your time looking at those!:). Your charging equipment can take as long to plan and install as your bus takes to get built. “It’s a construction project, one you’ve never done before,” a ZEB fleet manager advises.

Here is one primer on charging equipment, written for school buses, but with broadly useful facts on everything from kilowatt hours (kWhs) to ports to charging time requirements at levels 1, 2 and direct/fast charge. Plan to manage your charging to get your hoped-for fuel savings. To do that effectively, you’ll need a separate meter for your ZEB’s.

4.) Seek funding. Funding is a big topic, and will be the sole focus of one of CTE’s three ZEB webinars coming up this spring. Briefly, if you are public transit, FTA’s Low-No Emission program is a typical entry point.

If you work with school buses, states like Washington and Colorado have named electric school buses as intended projects for their Volkswagen mitigation funding. While Oregon has not, its Clean Fuels Program (CFP) and SB 1547 have led utilities like PGE and Pacific Power to create grant programs for which electric buses are eligible. All Oregon utilities receive CFP funds; you and community advocates could encourage your utility to invest those funds in the delta (differential cost) between diesel and electric buses.

5.) Build your relationship with your utility. I beat this drum a lot, because it’s the best music in town. Go further: educate yourself on vehicle to grid (V2G) services, a new song that utilities are understandably excited about. Start with an overview/summary like this one. V2G is more relevant to school bus fleets than public transit fleets, because they have much more downtime in which their battery-packs can potentially feed power back into the electric grid.

5.) a.) Finally, If you work for a utility, I suggest not just that you build relationships with the bus organizations in your territory, but actively help them learn about transportation electrification. One way you might do that is to provide some scholarships for bus people to attend key conferences. Keep in mind that not just transit agencies but school districts have notoriously tight budgets, and that it would never work to try to sacrifice class sizes or teachers’ salaries for electric school bus purchases. Profitable investor-owned utilities (IOU’s) in particular could be great partners here.

6.) Solid education/exposure to electric buses and charging infrastructure. I estimate that less than 7% of the United States’ 13,500 school districts and a slightly larger percentage of the nation’s public transit agencies have received solid education at this point (public transit started electrifying about seven years earlier than pupil transportation). Glancing exposure to e-buses at conferences is what most bus fleets have available to them so far. Working to address this need, the Electric Bus Learning Project* I lead here in Oregon with Neil Baunsgard have partnered with Lion Electric on a week-long series of hands-on Ride and Drive events (see photo below).



7.) A relationship with your bus fleet’s utility. When you get your first electric bus, your fleet’s electric utility suddenly becomes a fuel source. But a year ahead of your e-bus’s arrival you should know if you have enough amps to fuel it. Funding applications will pose that question. Start chatting with your utility today if you haven’t already. Have them visit your bus yard. They love advance notice of changes (who doesn’t? see Inclusiveness below). Have a designated person build your fleet’s relationship with your utility. Charging infrastructure is the hardest part of electrifying, and the easiest part to avoid since the buses, even with their novel electric drivetrains, feel more familiar than charging units that will be about the size and shape of refrigerators in your bus yard. Why are you still reading this and not talking with the Electrification Planner from your utility?! 🙂

8.) Local support for electric buses. This could be grassroots support, as from Chispa or a passionate middle-school science student like Holly Thorpe in Florida, who convinced her district to get its first e-bus. Or local support could come from leaders, i.e., mayor, county commissioner, District Superintendent or Chief Financial Officer. Funding agencies usually expect letters of support. If the bus fleet’s Transportation Director or General Manager or Fleet Manager does not yet want to get their first electric bus, that is a major barrier. Find out their objections and what they need to feel supported. They are correct that electrifying is a disruption to their existing operations, and that it will make their jobs harder. It may also make their jobs more interesting and rewarding. Which leads to the following.


9.) Inclusiveness. Change is hard. The people impacted by the changes that e-buses bring need to be included from the beginning. I’m thinking, for example, of bus drivers and mechanics, many of whom checked out the e-bus on our tour last week. Some were skeptical at first, then more positive after driving it. “It’s so quiet!” Note that driver skill extends your e-bus’s range, and lack of skill (like a heavy brake-foot that blocks regenerative braking) shaves miles off the bus’s range, leading to loss of promised savings on fuel. Skill level is connected to motivation. Being included increases motivation, which then improves skill.

10.) Funding. I put this last because funding is crucial, but not sufficient for success. You could land your funding for your pilot project and then have it fail for lack of planning and education, as happened in Massachusetts in 2016 (I’m told the bus is running now, but still, it was an early black eye). Utilities and Volkswagen mitigation funds are the prime funding sources for electric school buses.

Electric school buses cost 3x or more their diesel equivalents, and electric public transit buses about 50% more. Fuel and maintenance savings may mean that total cost of ownership compensates for the higher purchase price. The more you drive your e-bus, the more savings you generate from it.

I know I said ten things, but I lied.

11.) Fleet transition plan to scale up beyond the onesie-twosie nature of pilots. We’ve got to think big, as the World Resources Institute is helping us do with its initiative. Some bus fleets, such as Corvallis Transit System, develop transition plans even before receiving their first electric bus. They hired Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) to do this. CTE is also part of our Electric Bus Learning Project team.

Finally, this list is incomplete! You surely know things I don’t. Feel free to email and tell me what else bus fleets need in order to electrify.


Cross Posted with permission from electricbusnewsletter.org