FOUNTAIN, Colorado — It's been almost a year since Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 purchased its first electric school bus, E-1. The Navistar International Corporation bus looks identical to a traditional diesel-powered bus from the outside.
The differences become more apparent when transportation director Robert Leach turns on the power.
For example, the digital dashboard displays a propulsion load percentage. Instead of a fuel gauge, an icon of a charging station with an electrical cord sticking out lets the driver know the bus is fully charged.
"It's been fabulous, the quietness of it, the health of it, the safety for the kids," Leach says.
The quietness is hard to miss. The whoosh of the air brakes and blare of the backup warning signal almost seem too loud without the traditional rumble of a diesel engine.
Leach says that's the point. No more noisy motor, no more harmful exhaust.
"We have far fewer student management issues on the bus because students don't have to scream over the sound of a diesel engine," Leach explains. "It's as quiet as a classroom."
District 8 will soon buy a second E-bus thanks to a new round of grant funding from the State of Colorado and the EPA.
Governor Jared Polis announced awards for $24 million in new grants for electric school buses at a news conference Thursday at Denver's East High School. He envisions a time when the reduced operating costs of electric bus fleets free up more dollars in district budgets for education needs.
"I expect this transition is rapidly catching on," Polis told the crowd. "We are accelerating this with these grants."
The sticker price of an electric school bus is more expensive than a comparable diesel bus.
Leach says a Navistar International electric bus like E-1 can cost between $430,000 and $460,000 depending on how it's equipped. A similar diesel-engine bus costs around $150,000.
The savings, he explains, come in reduced maintenance costs.
"Right now, the estimates are 70-80 percent reduction in maintenance costs; it doesn’t use any fuel, it doesn’t use any fluids, E-1 is rarely in the shop," says Leach.
Denver Public Schools Transportation Director Albert Samora described the financial advantages in terms of "transportation math."
"If I buy a brand new diesel, and I put it on the road, one of the calculations that we use, and one of the most important, is the cost per mile," Samora said. "That cost per mile for a brand new diesel is anywhere from $0.67 To $0.80 Per mile. These buses are going to cost us around $0.20 To $0.25 Per mile."
Samora brought a Blue Bird electric bus to the media event at East High. He estimated its range to be 100 to 117 miles. Leach calculates E-1 can travel 135 miles before needing to be charged.
Both transportation directors charge their buses between their morning and afternoon routes.
"Typically we do," Leach says. "Right now, we're not charging between runs because we want to see how many days we can go on a single charge."
Districts making the switch to electric buses will have to keep charging times in mind. Samora said the Blue Bird requires around six hours to fully charge using a Level 2 charger.
"We are now investing in DC (direct current) fast charge equipment which will be about two and a half hours," he said.
Electrifying bus fleets big challenge. Leach has around 80 currently in the D-8 fleet. Samora manages 385 in DPS.
State Representative Alex Valdez, (D) Denver, believes the grants will speed up the change.
"We know as these buses start to become more common, the prices will start to come down and districts will start to make this decision on their own," Valdez said. "So, what we're doing is we're trying to incentivize that change."
Leach explained the grant funding covers the additional costs of buying an electric bus above what his school board would pay for a new diesel bus. Last year's grant also paid for the necessary charging infrastructure.
A spokesperson with the governor's office explained the funding comes from a mixture of state and federal sources. The Biden Administration announced $1 billion in grants nationwide for electric buses last year. The White House announced another $1.7 billion in grants for the program earlier this year.
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