Volkswagen diesel settlement funding electric school buses

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Of all the kinds of vehicles that can be made electric, school buses sure make a lot of sense.

Electric school buses have fewer maintenance needs and no noise pollution. And they curb diesel emissions—including fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide—that can contribute to asthma and other health issues. 

Michigan announced Tuesday that 17 electric school buses, split over seven school districts across the state, are being placed into service to replace older diesel buses.

Daimler-Thomas electric Jouley school bus

It’s one of a number of states and locales around the nation placing orders for electric buses—and perhaps being a little more proactive about it because they’re covered via the Volkswagen diesel settlement. 

In Michigan’s case, the buses are covered partly by the Michigan Beneficiary Mitigation Plan, established by the $64.8 million the state received from the VW settlement. The projects under the plan will also include local freight vehicles and shuttle/transit buses starting later this year. 

The electric buses are firsts in many ways. Inspection of them falls under the jurisdiction of the Michigan State Police, which needs to add a new section to its inspection guide. 

Up until now, electric school buses been mostly relegated to places with mild weather, like California; and they’ve been such a small portion of the bus business that electric-bus offerings were mostly limited to kits. But battery-technology advances plus money made available through the Volkswagen diesel settlement to individual states has piqued the interest of states, school districts, and parents alike. 

While the Michigan school-bus deployment might be the most noteworthy one so far for a cold-weather state, some other states have bigger plans. In December, Thomas Built Buses (TBB)—the same company that’s supplying some the Michigan buses [with the balance in Michigan supplied by Lion Electric]—announced a 50-bus allocation for the first phase of Dominion Energy’s school bus replacement program in Virginia. It’s the largest deployment of electric school buses in the nation. 

The TBB buses are produced through a partnership with Daimler Trucks North America, which has been developing a range of trucks including a heavy-duty electric semi, and they use Proterra technology, with a two-speed transmission and an estimated range of 134 miles from 220 kwh of battery capacity. They can DC fast charge at up to 60 kw. 

Blue Bird electric school bus

Last fall one of the other best-known coachbuilders, Blue Bird, revealed that it had about 100 orders for electric school buses and had delivered them to schools in California, North Dakota, and Washington. That company in its demo buses uses a 140-kwh battery pack—also with a two-speed transmission—good for about 100 miles in a 75,000-pound vehicle. 

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