North Carolina’s first electric school bus is top of the class

July 27, 2022

The Cherokee Boys Club in Cherokee, North Carolina has had its electric school bus since early 2022. Everything’s going great: For summer school sessions, the bus did two routes per day on one charge, running clean and quiet. The interior is the same as a diesel bus, so the drivers feel at home.

Except… the hushed motor might be a double-edged sword for adults.

“That’s one thing about the electric bus, you can actually hear the kids talk about you,” said Donnie Owle, service manager for the nonprofit club, which runs all bus service for the Cherokee Central School System. 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ new electric bus is the first in North Carolina, but certainly not the last. So far, the state has awarded funding for six electric school buses to districts across the state, including the tribe’s, through its share of the Volkswagen settlement, which amounts to more than $90 million for projects that lower harmful carbon emissions and improve local air quality. Separately, the Cherokee Boys Club has ordered five additional electric buses, due at the end of 2022, and has applied to fund 14 more, which would make their fleet 100% electric. After that phase, they plan to take their commitment to clean energy to the next level by offsetting the electricity used to charge the buses by installing a solar bus depot canopy. 

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed, EPA Secretary Michael Regan with tribal members and students.

“We’re hoping to totally electrify the Boys Club school bus fleet,” said Katie Tiger, the tribe’s air quality program supervisor. A growing number of school districts are also recognizing that electric school buses are the way of the future because they help meet climate goals and cut airborne toxins, among other benefits.

In addition to the state funding, one of the country’s largest energy utilities, Duke Energy, has helped fund charging installation at the Cherokee Boys Club—originally founded in 1932 as a Boarding School and now a self-supporting Tribal Enterprise. The next four buses are paid for through a US Environmental Protection Agency grant, a fifth bus through the Boys Club itself. For the remaining 14 buses, the tribe is seeking federal funding through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Tiger had already been planning to seek funding for the first bus directly from the 2016 U.S. settlement with Volkswagen over the car company’s violation of tailpipe emissions requirements. But, she learned through the Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition that the tribe could seek that money through North Carolina. 

“We could have applied as a tribe and been a beneficiary,” Tiger said, but seeking funds through the state instead “was just a much easier process than applying to the Volkswagen settlement ourselves.” The bus was delivered in March 2022 during a ribbon-cutting ceremony where excited students got to take a ride and learn about the difference between electric and diesel models.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed speaks at the ribbon cutting

The Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition had been following the Volkswagen settlement process, said Bill Eaker, a former coordinator (now retired) with the coalition who worked with the tribe on the grant. The coalition—part of the Land of Sky Regional Council—promotes the use of alternative fuels in the rural five-county area surrounding Asheville.

“Our job was to make sure that all our stakeholders’ fleets knew about these funding opportunities—especially this one, because it was so significant,” he said. “One of the goals of our coalition was to bring as much of that money back to our region as possible.” 

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been proactive about alternative fuels: It began making its own biodiesel in 2012. Owle was open to the idea of an electric bus, but he had questions. In addition to making sure the Thomas Built bus had enough range to do its job efficiently, Owle wondered about how the bus would drive. Could it handle the Smoky Mountain region’s hilly terrain? 

“It exceeded my expectations by 100 percent. The bus has plenty of power,” he said, adding that the bus doesn’t need charging between daily runs. 

Eaker helped Tiger and Owle gather the information they needed to get funding and move ahead with the buses. The Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition is part of the Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Coalition Network, which hosts regular events and offers a way for groups to share knowledge.

“One of the things we were hearing through the Clean Cities Network … was that it was critical for fleets that were looking at going electric—especially with medium and heavy-duty vehicles like buses—to start a dialogue with their utility very early in the process,” Eaker said. He encouraged the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to engage with Duke Energy, which provided some funding and technical assistance on designing and installing chargers for the Cherokee Boys Club buses.

Tiger acknowledges that sometimes people are on the fence about something new. “We’re not saying it’s a fix-all for what our environment is going through. But we know that this is better locally, and it’s better for the kids. It provides a healthier riding environment to and from school,” she said. “That’s what’s important.”

The Cherokee Boys Club is also a service vendor for Thomas Built Buses, so Owle has trained technicians to work on the new school buses.  

“America is going electric. It’s coming, no matter what,” he said. “With us being the forerunner, we’re ready for it.”


School buses are rolling into the future

May 4, 2022

Summer is almost upon us, which means the weekday growl of diesel school buses will subside, for now. Imagine: What if the return to classrooms in the fall was much quieter and cleaner? No more roaring engines or smelly exhaust.

In more than 300 school communities across the country, electric school buses are beginning to make that future a reality. Many school districts in the U.S. are recognizing that the switch to electric for the journey to school can tackle several problems at once. Electric school buses are far healthier for kids and drivers, important contributors to climate goals, good for the economy, and can boost reliability on the electric grid, among many other benefits. 

School buses represent a huge opportunity for transitioning away from fossil fuels. There are about half a million of them in the U.S., 95% of which run on diesel. Others run on propane.  

Fewer than 1% of school buses currently run on increasingly clean electricity from the grid. That’s changing, though.

Making the switch to electric school buses

More school districts, cities, and states are getting on board with electric school buses. For example, in California, the San Joaquin Valley Air Control District, which encompasses eight counties in the Central Valley, recently funded a program to buy 10 buses, while Modesto City Schools made a $14 million purchase of 30 buses, which the bus manufacturer touted as the single largest order (for purchase). Boston plans to replace its entire fleet of more than 700 school buses, and New York State will do the same, requiring all new school bus purchases to be zero-emission by 2027.

Modesto City Schools’ electric school buses are parked and charging underneath a solar panel canopy. — Credit: Modesto City Schools

How schools are paying for electric school buses

A variety of models are being used to help schools pay for buses. One big source of bucks: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Clean School Bus Program, which will soon release $5 billion over five years to replace existing school buses with clean and zero-emission models. The program, created through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, is already preparing districts to apply for funding—and it will prioritize areas that have been historically underserved. World Resources Institute (WRI) has a helpful rundown of federal programs and other potential sources of funding here

Electric school buses tend to cost more upfront than their diesel counterparts, but they don’t have to. Companies like Highland and Thomas Built are offering fleet-as-a-service plans that essentially allow school districts to “subscribe” to fleets that the leasing company owns and maintains. Using this model, Montgomery County’s board of education placed the single largest bus order yet last year, approving a 16-year, $169 million contract to lease 326 buses. CalStart has described other deployment models, such as leasing and turnkey services, that allow school districts to mix-and-match funding, ownership and operations responsibilities with third parties.

Why school districts are getting on board

The switch to electric school bus fleets are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially given that transportation is the nation’s largest source of climate-destabilizing pollution. Then there’s the toxicity of diesel, the byproducts of which have been linked with cancer and respiratory illnesses like asthma. There are no safe exposure levels of diesel exhaust to children, especially the youngest and those with respiratory illnesses. Reducing a child’s exposure to diesel emissions is linked to significant improvement in health and cognitive function.

Electric school buses also offer an escape from outsized fuel expenditures. 

“The cost of fuel has risen dramatically over the last few weeks — and particularly diesel,” a Modesto school official said in April. “So that was not our intention going in, but we see that as a benefit.”

“The cost of fuel has risen dramatically over the last few weeks, and particularly diesel” — Tim Zearley, Associate Superintendent, Business Services CBO

This chart from the Alternative Fuels Data Center makes it easy to see why. Check out the trend lines for propane, diesel, and electricity over the past decade. Electricity has consistently been the lowest-cost fuel with the least price volatility. 

Image Credit: U.S. Department of Energy, Alternative Fuels Data Center

With diesel pollution disproportionately impacting communities of color and overburdened neighborhoods, electric school bus plans can also be part of efforts to address longstanding inequities. As this post from WRI notes, 60% of students from low-income families ride the bus to school, and one-third of electric school bus commitments have been made by districts in the country’s top 25% most vulnerable counties, as rated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index. However, WRI’s research also found that there is a clear correlation between high median household income and the number of school districts with committed ESBs. The picture of how these commitments actually correlate to income levels in the places that will get these buses is still evolving. 

All of these buses will need to be maintained, and some programs also involve retrofits of existing buses. So this is an economic opportunity that creates jobs, a fact Boston Mayor Michelle Wu acknowledged when she mentioned an automotive technology program in the city that would start teaching students electric vehicle maintenance. And bus manufacturer Blue Bird has estimated that converting school buses to electric is a $150 billion opportunity for American manufacturing.

Finally, electric school buses can help bolster the grid by feeding power back to it (a concept known as V2G, for vehicle-to-grid) when they aren’t on the roads. 

The bottom line is that electric school buses provide many health, financial, and environmental benefits,  and there are a lot of ways school districts can adopt the technology to lead the way in the electric transportation transition. 


Behind the Wheel of Electric School Buses: Driving Green Instead of Yellow

July 27, 2021

Just Northeast of San Diego, California, Cajon Valley Union School District boasts an impressive track record for school sustainability. The home of the Braves already powers 26 of their school campuses with solar, introducing over 16,000 students to clean energy in the classroom. Now, three schools (and counting) have electric vehicle charging stations, all warehouse vehicles are being replaced with electric trucks, and the school bus fleet contains 5 electric school buses, with plans underway to triple their electric bus fleet. They even are part of their local utility’s pilot vehicle-to-grid (V2G) program, enabling bus batteries to bolster grid reliability by returning electricity to the grid during times of high energy demand.

We were lucky to connect with Juan Noriega, a school bus driver who was at the frontline of the district’s transition from diesel to electric school buses. His passion for electric buses is infectious, so much so that we’re considering getting our school bus driver’s license so we can experience it for ourselves. Here is that interview, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Pictured: Juan Noriega, electric school bus driver and Transportation Operations Assistant for Cajon Valley Union School District


Generation180: What were your initial thoughts about electric school buses?

Juan Noriega: The personal vehicle that I drive is a Prius, so I had experience with efficient cars, but never with electric vehicles. I was excited, but very worried about how long the batteries would last. That was my main concern, because if the battery was to run out, I would be concerned about the wellbeing of the students. Otherwise, I didn’t foresee any problems.

Generation180: What adaptations did you have to make to drive electric?

Juan Noriega: The transition was not that difficult at all and not extreme, like I thought it would be. Once you’re actually driving, you don’t focus on the specifics of the bus. You just switch from considering mpg to kw/h. The electric buses are very well manufactured, drive smoothly, and perform well.

As long as you drive carefully, like you’re supposed to for the kids (i.e. you can’t speed, can’t stop or accelerate too quickly), you are maximizing the performance of the bus and that lends itself to maintaining the electric battery. Acceleration was great, stopping was the same, and going uphill is a bit different.

I really enjoy driving electric buses. It’s something different, something new. The kids that get to ride in them are the “select few” since only 5 buses in our fleet out of 40 are electric; so they feel different and special.

Generation180: Is there anything you missed about diesel buses after making the switch?

Juan Noriega: I don’t miss having to fill them up! It’s wonderful not having to visit the diesel pump every day and have to inhale those fumes. As long as you plug them in at the yard, you’re set. It’s super easy, plus mess-free and smell-free. 

So, I don’t miss anything really about diesel buses since electric buses handle everything as well, and more. While there are some routes we can’t use the electric buses on because they don’t have the range for it (we have 100 mile range buses), overall, they serve our needs. As long as we plan ahead, as the fleet operations team does, it’s not an issue.

Generation180: What do you like most about the buses: smooth to drive, acceleration, safety, noise?

Juan Noriega: Quietness. Definitely. With that said, we do have a small noise it makes on purpose for 0-15 mph so people know we’re there. It’s a fun jingle, so everyone jokes that the electric school buses are like an ice cream truck.

The noise factor makes a big difference. Diesel is just so loud, and starting up close to a neighborhood at 5:30 am with 40 buses turning on would negatively impact the community. Now we have fewer community concerns and complaints, as electric buses make no sound to start.

Plus, the AC works really well. 

Generation180: What did parents and students say – did they like them? 

Juan Noriega: The buses look different (yellow and blue, not yellow and black, for fire safety reasons), so everyone knows who rides on the electric buses. Kids these days are very used to screens, so since the dashboard is a screen, they easily relate to the control panel and often ask questions.  All of the kids are excited by them, whether they ride them or not. When dropping kids off, parents and students alike often remark “woah, it’s electric! I’m curious, can I look inside?” The community accepted and welcomed the buses, wanting to learn more about electric transportation.

I also drove a lot of students with learning disabilities, and a major benefit for the majority of students was the lack of noise from the diesel engine. Plus, in the long-term, it’s improving their health by cleaning up the air they breathe every day.

Generation180: Do you have any advice for bus drivers that might be wary about giving up a vehicle they are comfortable with for an electric model?

Juan Noriega: Take the plunge! It’s a very easy vehicle to drive. It is basically the same in terms of drivability, so you’ll slip right in. You have to be aware of what you’re doing and your basic principles are the same. You just have a different motor and you have a different range.

I work for dispatch now and plan the routes, so it’s not on the driver. We manage the routes and range of the buses, and we would not send them on long routes or field trips they can’t handle. Technology is improving, as are bus charge points. For now we have limitations, and we use fleet management to address them. 

It’s a matter of having an open mind and trying it, so get behind the electric wheel! 


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