Driving green instead of yellow: An interview with the first electric school bus driver in Maine

January 11, 2023

With significant investment from federal and state governments, the math on electric school buses now pencils out. Electric school buses are a cleaner, safer alternative to dirty diesel buses—and cheaper to operate. While electric school buses cost three to four times a traditional diesel bus, new incentives through the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program are making it easier for schools to advance school bus electrification.

One district that’s been reaping the benefits of clean energy for a while is in Bar Harbor, Maine. Since 2016, a group of passionate students have driven clean energy and climate change initiatives, including getting their high school to switch to solar power. In 2021, they dipped their toes further into the world of clean energy and acquired the state’s first—and only—electric school bus.

We sat down with Andrew Keblinsky, the driver of their electric school bus, to discuss his experience transitioning rigs. Here is that interview, edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!

Generation180: How long have you been driving school buses? 

Andrew: I’ve been driving school buses since 2014—it happened to be the first job I landed in 1974. In September 2021 when we got our electric bus, thanks to a grant from the Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Settlement, I started driving electric.

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

Andrew: I thought they were expensive and I figured the return on investment would be forever. But we did get a grant, so we paid the same as we would for a diesel bus. But, that was my initial thought. Wow, as a bus driver for 39 years, I LOVE it now. 

I consider the bus my office: it’s where I go to work every day. The bus that we have is a Lion Electric. I like that it’s quiet and silent and has zero diesel fumes, making it a better space for me and my students to breathe. I had been driving Thomas or Blue Bird diesel buses, but this particular eLion bus is wider. It’s easier for me to walk up and down the aisle, and the aisle is wide enough that students can’t put their feet across the aisle, which is a great change. 

I have the longest route (63 miles) each morning and afternoon, compared to everyone doing about 25-30 miles, and it navigates well all over both the back and country roads.

Generation180: Did you make any adaptations start driving an electric bus?

Andrew: Nope, and I wouldn’t go back. I don’t need to be working, but I do it because it makes me a part of the community. But now I own the electric-only route and I love the electric bus. The students and parents lobbied hard for the bus and it’s a community win. I’m at the point where I’m attached to the bus, the route, and the process. If someone put me back in a diesel bus, I would quit. I do have leverage… I’m in charge. 

“If someone put me back in a diesel bus, I would quit.”

Andrew Keblinksy, behind the wheel of MDI’s electric school bus

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

Andrew: *Scoffs* Oh no, not at all! The range on a diesel bus is better. I only have 128 miles on a full battery, but I charge during the school day, and I never face any range anxiety. 

Because it’s silent, it came with a speaker that plays chimes that remind me of an ice cream truck, so students know you’re coming down the road. 

I never thought I’d be a crunchy granola or a Birkenstock person, but here I am. I’m into it and I am all for bus electrification. And now I own an e-bike. Yes, I’m an old guy riding around on an e-bike. I draw attention. 

“I never thought I’d be a crunchy granola or a Birkenstock person, but here I am. I’m into it and I am all for bus electrification. And now I own an e-bike”

Generation180: What do you like most about the bus?

Andrew: The air suspension makes it a really smooth drive. It’s also cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter, and has a great air conditioning system. 

I’m out in the country and have to back into the driveways, but I’ve had no trouble navigating them with the electric bus. We haven’t encountered any problems in the winter, even with colder temperatures and if it’s zero degrees in the morning. The only thing cold weather impacts is the range and that it takes longer to charge. 

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

Andrew: Students really like the bus. They respect it and keep it clean. I feel lucky and have wonderful students. 

The community played a large role in us getting the bus and really embraced it. The nearby town of Hancock sees us driving, and we draw attention. Maybe I will be part of the spark for more communities to consider electric buses. 

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?

Andrew: I think everybody should keep an open mind. I think we need to find an alternative to fossil fuels because we’re paying the price, so people should support electric buses. Give it a try — see what you think! 

This is the second issue of our electric school bus driver interview series. Here’s the first part, an interview with Juan Noriega from Cajon Valley School District.