Highland Electric Fleets— Providing School Districts a Path to Electric School Buses at Scale

December 6, 2021

Why Electric School Buses?

Yellow school buses have long been an iconic symbol of the American education system. Today,  in the United States,  they transport over 25 million school children every day. These buses are vital to transporting children to and from school, and are also statistically the safest way to make these trips. Unfortunately, traditional diesel-powered school buses emit harmful local pollutants, including NOx and particulate matter. These airborne pollutants are especially harmful to young children, as they have higher activity levels and rates of respiration, and their smaller bodies put them at ground level, where peak concentrations of the pollutants are found. The issue is further exacerbated by poor ventilation on diesel school buses, which can allow pollution concentrations inside the bus to reach up to 10 times that of ambient levels outside the bus. 

Electric school buses provide a safe alternative to these harmful diesel-powered buses since they produce little to no tailpipe-emissions. Electric vehicles (EVs), including electric school buses (ESBs), that operate solely on electricity have zero tailpipe emissions. It is important to note that emissions from electrical generation vary from state-to-state, but with a few exceptions, EVs have a well-to-wheel emissions advantage over similar conventional vehicles running on gasoline or diesel. The chart below details electricity sources in the state of Virginia— note the low percentage of coal and petroleum in the mix.

This data and more information on VA emissions can be found at: https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric_emissions_sources.html 

The chart below details emissions savings for an electric bus charging on the Virginia grid.

New Vehicle Lifetime Emission Benefits
Pollutant Electric Bus savings over old bus
Nox (lb) 545.27 
PM2.5 (lb) 4.40
GHG (Short tons) 187.01

Emissions from EV’s, including electric school buses, will continue to decrease into the future, as the grid increases its portfolio of zero-emission renewable electricity. Virginia is rapidly retiring existing coal-fired power plants, with the final plant expected to cease operation in 2024. The Commonwealth also has a goal to be 100% carbon-free by 2050. As demonstrated in the below figure from the Virginia Department of Mines Minerals and Energy and the Virginia Clean Economy Act, Dominion Energy’s renewable generation portfolio is expected to make steady increases towards 100% renewable energy by 2050. This transformation of the electricity grid will decrease EV Well-to-Wheel GHG emissions to zero over time.

This data and more information on the VA energy mix can be found here: http://cleanenergyva.dmme.virginia.gov/ 

In addition to lower emissions and increased student health, ESB’s can save school districts money. Electricity as a transportation fuel comes in at about a third of the cost of diesel and ESBs have far fewer maintenance needs, saving school districts about 60% a year on maintenance costs.

Available funding for Electric School Buses in Virginia

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean School Bus program is open for its second round of funding. The Clean School Bus funding opportunity is open to school districts in Virginia until the application deadline on February 1st, 2022. The reimbursement program provides rebates up to $300,000 for the incremental costs of ESB’s and their customer-side charging infrastructure. Through this program, school districts can apply for two to ten buses. Scrappage of existing diesel buses with engine years 2009 or older will be required as this program is focused on taking old, dirty diesel buses off the road. School districts who received funding in the first round of DEQ Clean School Bus funding are permitted to apply. School districts which received funding in the first round must have ordered electric school buses prior to applying for additional funding. We also expect more funding to become available in the future with the recent announcement of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which will allocate $2.5 billion for zero-emission school buses. 

An Introduction to the Highland Model

Highland Electric Fleets is a Boston-based firm that operates in 20 states across the country, providing school districts the opportunity to switch to ESB’s. By providing turnkey electric bus solutions, Highland is able to provide end-to-end fleet assessment, construction and maintenance, upskill the district’s existing mechanics and drivers, and lower the risk — both financial and mechanical— for school districts. Since the first round of Virginia funding, Highland has developed an additional offering that allows school districts to use the Highland model, while owning their own buses, thus making them eligible for this round of funding. In 2021, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland announced a contract with Highland to transition its school bus fleet to all-electric, starting with 326 buses over the next 5 years. The first of these buses were already delivered in the first half of December 2021. This project is the largest single procurement of ESBs in North America. Montgomery County Schools operates more than 200 schools and serves over 160,000 students county-wide. The MCPS Department of Transportation is one of the largest in the country, with over 1,400 buses in their fleet. The graphic below highlights their ESB adoption process. 

In Montgomery County, Highland is procuring Thomas Built Electric Jouley buses from American Bus Sales, who will supply and service those vehicles. Through this model, Highland will own, operate and maintain the school buses for Montgomery County for 12 years. During this time, Highland will also install charging equipment and provide driver training for the fleet. This model allows school districts to scale up their electric school bus fleets while remaining within their typical transportation budget.

Electric school bus chargers in the ground at the Bethesda, MD school bus depot where the first of the Montgomery County electric school buses will be deployed (Photo courtesy of Highland Electric Fleets)

In order to deploy ESB’s at scale in Montgomery County, Highland will install 45 Power Electronics chargers which will connect to 15 power cabinets across the site. This infrastructure will amount to 5mW of total grid connection. These chargers will also have Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) capabilities, which will allow Montgomery County and Highland to recoup ownership and maintenance costs by allowing them to sell energy back to the grid. V2G capability was exemplified during summer 2021, when Highland successfully worked with Beverly Public Schools and Utility National Grid to reduce peak load, and pass cost savings back to the school district.

Highland is eager to aid school districts with their unique electrification journey. In an effort to ensure district eligibility for funding such as the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Clean School Bus Program, the company offers multiple ownership configurations. Highland is brand agnostic and can work with whichever brand of electric school bus aligns with a school district’s preferences and needs. If you are interested in learning more about what Highland has to offer, please submit an inquiry here today!