Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Utility companies are helping cash-strapped school districts replace diesel buses with electric ones that have a secondary purpose: helping to manage electricity demand.

Why it matters: Electric buses are cleaner, but cost about three times more. Using them for energy storage can help close that cost gap and smooth out energy demand on the electric grid.

What's happening: Less than 1% of America's 480,000 school buses are electric today, but that's beginning to change.

  • Communities in California, Massachusetts and a few other states are testing electric school buses and charging infrastructure (in some cases, tapping funds disbursed from Volkswagen's diesel emissions settlement with the U.S. government).
  • Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology for school buses is still fairly new.
  • Michigan-based DTE Energy, for example, has a pilot with six buses in two school districts. It is testing charging infrastructure as well as V2G.

The most ambitious V2G effort comes from Dominion Energy, which is planning to deploy 1,050 electric school buses in Virginia over the next five years.

  • Dominion just ordered its first 50 electric buses from Thomas Built Buses, a division of Daimler Trucks North America.
  • The batteries and related EV technology are supplied by Proterra, a leading supplier of electric transit buses. The powertrain includes 220 kWh of total energy capacity and provides a 134-mile driving range — more than enough to deliver kids to and from school each day.
  • The buses can charge in about three hours with Proterra's 60kW DC fast-charging system.

Virginia school districts could save $700 per month — $8,400 per year — per bus in operating costs, says Mark Webb, Dominion's senior vice president and chief innovation officer.

  • "The hurdle is the upfront capital cost for the school district," which could take 15 years to recoup, even with lower operating costs, he said.
  • "We can step in and fill that void and they can capture the future benefits for the same upfront cost."

How it works: V2G technology is not a new concept, but the economics have been challenging.

  • V2G enables electric vehicles to store surplus energy from intermittent wind or solar sources during non-peak periods and feed power back to the grid when needed.
  • The problem is that passenger cars tend to move around, and their relatively small batteries can discharge only a small amount of electricity at a time.

A fleet of school buses is a better source of distributed power because their usage patterns are predictable.

  • They are idle at precisely the times when energy demand is at its peak — midday and during the hottest summer months.
  • By storing or drawing power from a fleet of parked school buses, utilities can avoid wasting surplus energy from renewables or cranking up a natural gas power plant, for example.

The bottom line: With 480,000 school buses on the roads, the impact could be huge, Ryan Popple, founder and CEO of Proterra, tells Axios. "If you fully electrify the school bus fleet, you're offsetting a couple of nuclear power plants."

Go deeper

Updated 43 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Tim Scott says Trump "misspoke" when he told Proud Boys to "stand by"

Photo: Bonnie Cash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) told reporters on Wednesday that he believes President Trump "misspoke" when he told the far-right "Proud Boys" group to "stand back and stand by" in response to a question about condemning white supremacy at the first presidential debate.

Catch up quick: Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump on Tuesday, "Are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups and to say that they need to stand down?" Trump asked who specifically he should condemn, and then responded, "Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I'll tell you what, somebody's got to do something about antifa and the left."

Updated 51 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Commission on Presidential Debates wants changes

Photos: Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Commission on Presidential Debates announced Wednesday that it plans to implement changes to rules for the remaining debates, after Tuesday night's head-to-head between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was practically incoherent for most of the night.

What they are saying: "Last night's debate made clear that additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues," the CPD said in a statement.

Trump says he doesn't know who Proud Boys are after telling them to "stand by"

President Trump told reporters on Wednesday that he doesn't know who the Proud Boys are, after saying at the presidential debate last night that the far-right group should "stand back and stand by" in response to a question asking him to condemn white supremacists.

Why it matters: The comments set off outrage and calls for clarification from a number of Republican senators. After being asked several times on Wednesday whether he will condemn white supremacy, Trump responded, "I have always denounced any form — any form of any of that, you have to denounce. But I also — Joe Biden has to say something about antifa."

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!