Thanks to a $5.5 million grant, the Pinellas County School District (PCS) will soon become one of the first in the state to swap out old diesel buses for new electric models.
While 20 environmentally friendly and quieter buses arrive in December, one of the district’s bus yards – the expansive Walter Pownall Services Center – recently installed 20 electric charging stations. PCS is purchasing the new vehicles with grant funding from a 2016 settlement between Volkswagen and the Department of Justice over the vehicle manufacturer’s emissions violations.
Head Technician Brian Lowe called it an exciting time for the school district as it continues utilizing new technologies. PCS now operates 188 propane-powered buses and will become one of the first in the state to put electric models on the road.
“We’ve done propane buses to help reduce emissions – now we’re doing electric and going for zero emissions,” said Lowe. “We’re trying to do our part to help the students and residents of Pinellas County, and the environment, by lowering our emissions.”
After about a year-long process, the district gained approval for the grant in the spring. It began installing the charging stations at the end of July through a partnership with Duke Energy Florida. Lowe expects to save money on diesel fuel and maintenance – such as oil changes – but said it is hard to compare operational costs as PCS is entering a new era.
Broward, Manatee, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Sarasota Counties are also receiving grant money from the Volkswagen settlement to add electric buses to their fleets.
“Nobody in the state has them yet,” said Lowe. “So it’s hard to say what the difference in cost to charge a bus versus fuel is.”
However, Lowe is sure that lower emissions are better for students, drivers and county residents. He also noted that electric motors run much quieter than diesel engines.
Lowe said he was able to test drive buses from three manufacturers and the noise reduction was significant, calling that his “biggest takeaway.” Operational controls will remain the same, added Lowe, aside from the regenerative braking system in electric vehicles. That mechanism captures kinetic energy from braking and converts it into electrical power.
Although district officials have yet to decide on a manufacturer, Lowe said that any company they choose would provide initial and periodic training for drivers and maintenance staff. He also noted that a bumper-to-bumper manufacturer’s warranty would cover part replacement costs for seven years.
“So, we’ll be leaning on the manufacturer or the dealers,” said Lowe. “Until we get enough training to be certified mechanics, none of them want you messing with the electric drive system.”
PCS, he explained, operates 333 buses daily. The oldest models date back to 2003, and those will be the first to go when the electric ones arrive.
The electric buses cost about $400,000, nearly quadruple what the district would pay for a diesel model. However, the grant covers 75% of the price, which means PCS will pay what it would for a typical bus.
“So, out of pocket for the district, there’s no additional expenditure because of this grant,” said Lowe.
He said the grant comes with strict stipulations meant to reduce emissions. The district must take the oldest buses off the road first, he explained, before destroying them.
Lowe said his staff must cut the old buses into pieces and drill a three-inch hole in the engine block. Once that work is complete, it is off to the scrap yard. He said that is to ensure the buses are not resold and end up back on the road – due to the emission reduction component of the grant.
While PCS officials are still ironing out program details, Lowe believes they will assign the electric buses to specific routes. The procedure for the typical models, he explained, is that drivers bid on routes and buses according to seniority at the beginning of the school year.
Lowerelayed that according to the manufacturer, the 80 kW DC fast charging stations can charge a bus from 20% to 100% in less than three hours. According to PCS statistics, drivers typically log between 150 to 180 miles a day.
“So, the bus can do its morning route, come back, plug in and be fully charged for the afternoon route,” he added.
PCS officials expect to put the new electric school bus on the road in January, or February at the latest.