The Montgomery County public school district in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., is switching its bus fleet over to electric models at no additional cost in a first-of-its-kind move that could serve as a model for President Biden.
The fleet deal, which will fully replace Montgomery County’s more than 1,400 diesel-fueled bus fleet with electric models over 12 years, is one of the largest in the United States to date. Biden, in his campaign climate plan, pledged to convert all 500,000 school buses in the U.S. to zero-emissions models and ensure all U.S.-made buses are zero-emissions by 2030.
The Montgomery Board of Education voted Tuesday to approve an initial four-year contract with Highland Electric Transportation, which will purchase more than 300 electric school buses, help build and operate the charging infrastructure, and maintain the buses.
“I thought over the last several years that we’d be making a move to electric buses, but I thought we’d be doing it like dipping our toes in the water with one or two buses to start,” said Todd Watkins, transportation director for Montgomery County Public Schools, in an interview.
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He cited the “huge cost differential” between existing diesel buses and electric models, which can currently have an upfront sticker price 2 to 3 times higher.
In the Montgomery school district’s case, however, Highland Electric will take on much of the financial risk by owning and operating the electric buses and charging infrastructure. Most other school districts rely on federal and state grants to purchase electric buses and, even then, only do so in small batches.
“This is maybe the first example of a true master plan, commercially scalable program where a whole fleet is going to convert over 12 years,” said Duncan McIntyre, founder and CEO of Highland Electric.
He noted Montgomery County is one of the 10 largest districts in the country, serving more than 200 schools.
Watkins said Montgomery County will add 25 electric buses to its fleet this fall and an additional 61 electric buses next year. After that, all of its replacement buses will be electric models, totaling roughly 120 per year. It’s a speed Watkins said he “wouldn’t have even dreamed of two years ago.”
All of the buses will be built by North Carolina-based Thomas Built Buses and powered by California-based Proterra, an electric powertrain manufacturer that recently announced plans to go public.
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Nat Kreamer, CEO of Advanced Energy Economy, said fleet solutions companies like Highland Electric can help Biden meet his pledge to electrify U.S. school buses over the next 10 years by bringing private capital and expertise to historically underfunded school districts.
“Many school districts in the country don’t have enough money for their core education program, much less making new investments,” he said.
Kreamer, recently appointed to Highland Electric’s board of directors, said the Biden administration can encourage more fleet deals like the partnership between Montgomery’s school district and Highland Electric by allowing federal grants for electric vehicles to be used for vehicles owned and operated by private entities.
“That’s a simple decision that can be made in the executive branch” about how they administer the program, he said, adding it would leverage private capital to spark larger electric bus purchases and quicker fleet turnover.
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McIntyre predicts growing interest in electrifying whole fleets because they have a predictable duty cycle and tend to come back to the same central depot, which is ideal for electric charging infrastructure, he said.
Biden, in his sweeping executive order last month, directed the federal government to explore electrifying its 645,000 vehicles.
“We’re entering a real turning point where fleets are going to be the prime targets to convert,” McIntyre said.