Minnesota schools testing electric buses find benefits and barriers

Published 5:53 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

By Dan Gunderson

Morris Area Schools jumped on the electric school bus early. They were among the first schools to apply for an electric school bus grant program run by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2020.

Superintendent Shane Monson is generally pleased with the performance of the two electric buses used on daily routes.

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“Overall, I think the experience has been good,” said Monson. “We’ve learned some things along the way, and been able to provide feedback.”

The fuel savings are a benefit, the buses are not as noisy, and they align with the community wide focus on clean energy.

“But when you’re the first one out on an adventure of sorts like this, you get to deal with the bumps in the road as well,” said Monson.

The buses require additional driver training because the electric vehicles accelerate and brake differently from a bus with an internal combustion engine. The electric buses can’t be used on out of town trips for extra-curricular activities because of limited charging options in rural areas, said Monson.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are providing funding to encourage schools to transition from diesel to electric buses.

Last year the Minnesota legislature appropriated $13 million to set up an electric school bus program which has yet to be activated by the state Department of Commerce.

Going electric reduces air pollution from diesel fueled engines and lowers emissions of climate warming greenhouse gases. The MPCA estimates each electric bus replacing a similar diesel vehicle cuts greenhouse gas emissions by about 140 tons over its lifespan.

But cost and charging infrastructure are identified as barriers. Electric school buses currently cost nearly four times as much as a diesel powered bus. Charging infrastructure is limited, especially in rural communities.

“New technologies are hard to get used to and people don’t really like change,” said Sarah Shapiro, who manages the electric school bus grant program at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “So I think one of the biggest things is getting people on board with making a shift that’s going to be better for the environment and better for our kids.”

There are currently 10 electric school buses operating in Minnesota, according to Shapiro, and the MPCA is collecting data on eight of them.

“Many of our pilot participants have said there’s been a bit of a learning curve with adjusting to the new technology,” she said. “But as the drivers get used to it and the students get used to it, many of them have said there’s definitely a decrease in the noise and not having the diesel exhaust smell is pretty great.”

The electric buses also bring significant fuel savings over internal combustion engine buses.

“One of the biggest things we know right up front is the fuel is cheaper,” said Nick Martini, senior vice president of operations for North Star Bus Lines and American Student Transportation.

The companies transport students for several schools in the north metro, including Osseo, Mounds View and Anoka Hennepin. Three of the 400 buses in their fleet are electric.

“Right now we’re paying over $3 a gallon for diesel, and for electricity we’re paying about $1.05 or $1.10 per ‘gallon’ (equivalent),” said Martini.

Regular maintenance costs less and takes less time with no oil changes or engine upkeep. Martini said long term savings will depend on how long the bus batteries last.

The buses have been relatively trouble free and while charging infrastructure does limit how the buses are used, Martini said that’s less of an issue in the metro than it is in rural parts of the state.

“One of the things that I think has been hard for us is, for whatever reason, its just become so highly political,” said Martini.

There was a lot of pushback from residents unhappy about the use of electric buses.

A common concern was that the buses would fail in a Minnesota winter. That hasn’t been the case based on experience from a couple of winters. At below zero temperatures, the batteries lose 10-15 percent of capacity, said Martini.

The buses came with diesel powered auxiliary heaters to keep students warm, but Martini said they weren’t necessary and haven’t been used much. The buses are pre-warmed while still plugged into the grid and stay warm running on battery power.

Testing the electric bus technology at a time where the cost is subsidized just makes sense to Martini. He has grants to buy another six electric buses but he opposes any mandate to switch to electric.

“We will make that decision for ourselves and with our customers in mind,” said Martini. “I think that’s a really key factor especially when it comes to public support. I think people get nervous when they hear the word all, or ‘you have to.’”

Morris Superintendent Shane Monson isn’t ready to commit to expanding the electric fleet for the western Minnesota community. He wants to see costs come down and charging infrastructure expand.

With current state and federal grants, Minnesota schools plan to add 22 additional electric buses in the next few months.