Electric School Bus Success in Rural Virginia: Louisa County Public Schools

September 28, 2022
Two electric school buses are parked in from of their electric vehicle charging stations.
Louisa County’s first two electric school buses sit parked at their chargers.

Since early 2021, Louisa County Public Schools has been operating two electric school buses (ESBs) as part of their fleet. These buses were two of the first electric school buses deployed in the Commonwealth and have since served as an example of how ESBs can serve a variety of school districts and their needs.

Louisa County is a rural school district, serving approximately 5,000 students with one high school, one middle school and four elementary schools. To serve these students, they operate 90 bus routes per day, covering approximately 2,700 miles. 

These first buses that Louisa received were part of the Dominion Energy Electric School Bus Program offered to Dominion customers in Virginia. The county decided to participate in this program for a couple of reasons. Louisa was already interested in shifting away from a diesel engine mindset and this opportunity presented them with the chance to try something new and test out the technology on their routes. The second reason was that it was too good of an opportunity to pass up!

Through this program, Dominion funded the full cost of the buses and their charging stations. Electric buses can save school districts money through lower fuel and maintenance costs, but the high price of an ESB, at about three times the price of its diesel alternative, can be a barrier if financial incentives aren’t available.

After a little over a year and a half of operation, Deborah Coles, Director of Transportation, Safety, and Security, says that they have not met any challenges. When they received the buses, they immediately put them into operation, but due to altered routes during the COVID-19 Pandemic, they felt that they didn’t get a complete assessment of the buses until the 2021-2022 school year when they resumed normal operation.

Louisa county's Deborah Coles stands at a podium in front to an electric school bus in Charlottesville Virginia. She is smiling as she share's her county's experience with their electric school buses.
Deborah Coles, Director of Transportation, Safety, and Security for Louisa County Public Schools shares her experience operating electric school buses at an electric school bus event in Charlottesville, VA.

From their preliminary experience, they have seen cost savings in excess of $5,000 annually in general maintenance and fuel costs per bus. From their initial few months with the buses, they found that their buses were frequently returning to the depot with 55 to 70% of their charge remaining. Even while running the heaters, which are known to draw down the battery, buses were returning with more than half of their range.

In addition to fleet benefits, the community has also gained from these buses. As Ms. Coles explained, “The community is in awe and are enthused that we have electric buses. All students want to ride the electric bus and their comments are centered around the ‘awesomeness’ of the ride. The quiet engine makes conversation possible as you don’t have to yell to be heard”.

After seeing the successful integration of their first two buses, Louisa County has pursued additional funding for more electric school buses and recently received the delivery of two more buses which were awarded through an EPA grant.

Louisa County’s experience with electric school buses is a success story for all school districts, especially rural ones, but it also highlights barriers these school districts face as they move to transition to electric. Currently, the district is converting their fleet to electric and gasoline buses in an attempt to move away from diesel. Right now, they are mainly moving towards gasoline due to the lower vehicle costs.

When funding opportunities arise for more electric school buses, Louisa is interested but notes that there are still limitations to these funding programs that can make it difficult for small and rural school districts to participate. Many funding programs require scrappage of older diesel buses or are in the form of rebates that require schools to pay the full price of the vehicle before receiving the program funds. In smaller school districts like Louisa, taking buses out of their existing fleet isn’t an option because they need to keep buses on hand as spares for when other buses undergo maintenance. Some funding programs like the first round of the EPA Clean School Bus Program are looking to address these issues by expanding scrappage eligibility and providing rebates ahead of the vehicle purchase, but it can still be difficult for some school districts to participate.

Ms. Coles’ advice to other school districts interested in electric school buses is that while each school division’s terrain is unique, “you know your terrain and your area, so if the grant fits your budget, go for it!”