Montgomery County Public Schools operates the largest electric school bus fleet in the nation, and the county expects to transition to an electric-only fleet within 10 years. As drivers adjust to the new models, transportation director Greg Salois said they’re discovering calmer rides.
“Overall, they love it,” he said. “There’s no noise.”
Rockville resident Eric Melgar has been a Montgomery County school bus driver for a year and a half. He described the electric buses as modernized, eco-friendly and roomier than diesel models. He said not only do students love the new buses, but he’s noticed his riders are quieter and better behaved on them.
“They automatically fall in love with it,” he said. “It’s a much smoother ride — you can tell the difference going over bumps and turns.”
The county owns 85 electric school buses, around 50 of which are currently in operation. Salois said the remaining buses are waiting on vendors to install cameras and two-way radios before they can hit the roads.
Fully charged, an electric bus can travel over 100 miles. With room for seven more passengers, the new buses are longer than the diesel model by 4 feet and heavier by a ton, according to depot manager Jim Beasley.
Beasley manages the Bethesda school bus depot in Rockville, one of six bus storage hubs across the county and the first to house buses with electric motors. He said his depot received its first batch of 25 electric buses in January, and 18 of them are now on the road.
Riding on a school bus without the steady roar of a diesel engine to yell over can be unnerving to first-timers, Beasley said, but added that the students love the quieter environment and echoed Melgar’s observation about improved behavior. He said the drivers enjoy the new buses just as much as their riders.
“Once they drive them, they want them,” he said.
Each driver is required to undergo several hours of training before they get behind the wheel of an electric model, Beasley said.
A bill passed in 2019 requires all new school buses purchased in Maryland to be zero-emission vehicles, meaning they cannot produce exhaust. Over the course of an average school day, the diesel bus fleet guzzles 17,000 gallons of fuel, Salois said.
Eliminating reliance on diesel will bring the county closer to its goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Exposure to diesel exhaust has also been linked to many health concerns, including increased risk of asthma, respiratory illnesses, and heart and lung diseases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
A budget-neutral switch
To make the switch, MCPS is partnering with Highland Electric Fleets, a Massachusetts-based energy equipment company offering support services to help school districts go electric. MCPS anticipates adding 326 electric buses to its fleet with Highland’s help before their contract expires in 2024.
For its diesel engines, MCPS bought directly from manufacturer Thomas Built Buses at $145,000 to $160,000 per bus. For electric models, Highland acts as the dealer between Thomas Built and MCPS. Highland purchases models from Thomas on MCPS’ behalf at $380,000 to $390,000 per bus and charges MCPS the same price it would otherwise pay Thomas Built for a diesel. Highland absorbs the difference in cost for the electric models and receives federal grants and subsidies to offset it, including an $817,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Association.
The cost of driving an electric bus is around $2,600 for every 15,000 miles, Salois explained. For a diesel engine, driving that same mileage would cost the county around $9,000 in fuel.
Salois said the new buses also require “dramatically less upkeep.” Maintenance for an electric bus costs 20 cents per mile, versus double that amount for a diesel. Combining fuel and maintenance costs, Salois said the county saves around $9,300 per bus every year.
Shifting to electric means depots must install charging stations and related infrastructure to power the buses, Salois said. The dispensers, large metal boxes that funnel power from the charger to the bus, cost between $30,000 and $40,000 to install. One charger funnels power to three dispensers, one per bus.
Overall, the new fleet will cost the county no more in depreciation than the older diesel models, Salois said.
“This is budget-neutral for us,” he said.
Former Department of Transportation Director Todd Watkins signed off on the contract with Highland. Watkins is no longer employed with the district after an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General recently found that he and another official were party to significant financial improprieties.
Salois said despite Watkins’ name being on the Highland contract, his alleged misconduct did not affect the Highland contract.
“Everything involved with that incident had nothing to do with the electric buses,” he said. “Nothing.”
A broader electric pivot
Updating the bus fleet is part of a county-wide initiative to move toward electric energy. The county government has promised to cease purchasing diesel and fossil fuel vehicles altogether by 2025. All county-operated vehicles are expected to run on electricity by 2035.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” Salois said.
In October, the county unveiled a new solar-powered bus depot in Silver Spring that will house 70 electric commuter buses by 2026. The power generated by the depot is expected to reduce county greenhouse gas emissions by more than 160,000 tons.
Salois said the county’s goal is to eventually implement a vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, system. In case of emergency power outages, a V2G system would allow buses to be plugged directly into the county’s power grid to supply energy.
“It’s amazing how much power you can use from these things,” he said of the bus batteries.
Currently, five out of six MCPS bus depots house electric buses. Beasley cited infrastructure complications as the reason why West Farm remains the last diesel-only depot.
One area still in need of improvement is the county’s special education buses, which are much smaller and bulkier than standard engines. Beasley said engineers are still figuring out how to design a model that can hold an electric battery. He said the county has 560 special education buses, all of which are diesel. Hopefully by next year, he said, designers will have a working electric model for this subset of the fleet.
MCPS sends 1,230 buses out on routes every school day. Salois said over 900 buses will still be needed over the next 10 years to fulfill the county’s all-electric pledge. After the contract with Highland expires in two years, he said the fate of the project will rely on the commitment of county officials to ensure its completion.