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New York Enacts First-in-Nation Plan to Electrify All State School Buses\ Image: The BEAST zero-emissions all-electric school bus. Photo by GreenPower Motors used with permission

Clean Transport

Interview with GreenPower Motors CEO Fraser Atkinson

GreenPower Motors recently announced its plans to manufacture zero-emission all-electric school buses in West Virginia, and CEO Fraser Atkinson took the time to sit down with me and share some details of this plan and also what inspired him to found GreenPower.

GreenPower Motors, he told me, designs and manufactures a suite of medium and heavy-duty electric vehicles. GreenPower’s line of EVs includes the EV Star and EV Star Plus shuttles, the BEAST school bus line, the EV Star CarGo, the CarGo Plus, and the CC bare cab and chassis for delivery, which can carry up to 6,000 pounds. The new buses in West Virginia will be part of the company’s BEAST product line. BEAST, Fraser told me, is an acronym for Battery Electric Automated School Transportation.

“We have multiple suppliers in terms of our underlying battery cells and put our own battery packs together, our own VCU battery management systems but the overall design is, you know a clean, cheap design, that we look at where we’re going to place all of the batteries, where do we need the distress points or waypoints so that by the time we’ve completed our build we’ve maximized the range in terms of the intended duty cycle and in terms of the payload.”

Fraser shared a bit about the vehicles GreenPower has brought to market.

“The vehicles we’ve brought to market range from 25 foot EV Star and we call it the EV Star platform because we have a number of passenger related vehicles as well as delivery and a CarGo Plus box truck type vehicle — all of which are directed at Class 4 space which is the particular market that we’ve targeted as we felt that the larger OEMs would be focused on the bigger volume markets in the Class 1 and 2 light-duty like the vans.

“And then the traditional companies like Peterbilt, Kenworth, and even the new players like Tesla with their Semi would be the Class 8 of the truck side. So we’ve focused on the Class 4 for both the passenger and the delivery and then the Class 4-8 on the bus side with all four transit with all the way up to a double-decker that seats 100 people as well as a type D school bus that we’ve recently brought to market that was part of the genesis of the West Virginia deal that we announced last week.”

Fraser founded GreenPower ten years ago, and he shared how he came to do so.

“We were looking into alternative energy compulsion systems for medium and heavy-duty equipment and on the private side, I own a number of companies in the ready-mix concrete and the recast concrete that used heavy equipment all of which are powered by diesel engines so aren’t particularly the cleanest in terms of the operations. So I found it appealing that there were sectors that were looking at developing alternative energy sources. So that’s what got me involved with GreenPower and early on, I asked the question of well we’re doing all emission diesel for opportunities in Africa. We’re looking at CNG in South America. It looked like we were trying to do too many things with too many types of propulsion systems or technologies.

“Of all of this stuff as a group, what did we think could be the most transformative? Like, what could blow up in the industry and collectively. And then we all said, battery-electric. But back ten years ago it didn’t make economic sense. So we decided in any event let’s pivot to the battery-electric and let’s work at bringing to market products in that space and as I say initially when we first brought our 40-footer to market and got it FMVSS compliant in August 2014, back then the price point for a vehicle was literally more than double what a traditional ICE vehicle was in that space.

“The batteries were too expensive. The weight was too much and the range wasn’t there. It was populated by a lot of negatives in terms of well ‘it can’t do this, it can’t do that’ and so we’ve come a long way as a sector in the last six or seven years from when we first brought our product to market to where the total cost of ownership does make sense.”

GreenPower Motors BEAST Zero-Emission All Electric School Bus Line

The BEAST zero-emissions all-electric school bus. Photo by GreenPower Motors, used with permission.

Next we spoke of GreenPower’s recent news in West Virginia. The company entered into a lease/purchase agreement with the state of West Virginia to acquire properties located in South Charleston, WV. The properties total 9.5 acres and an 80,000 square foot building. The terms of lease require no cash up front, and monthly lease payments begin nine months after production starts. GreenPower will manufacture its zero-emission, all-electric school bus line by the second half of 2022. West Virginia will provide up to $3.5 million in employment incentive payments to GreenPower for creating jobs as production increases over time.

I asked Fraser when he thought the first bus would be produced.

“Our occupancy date was originally targeted for September first. This is what we had mutually agreed upon with the State of West Virginia. The State of West Virginia is buying the properties and is dealing that with us directly. We are delighted. We don’t have to deal with a vendor or other issues. We’re dealing with a group that’s really going to help us move this forward.

“Since announcing the deal, the discussions that I’ve had with others in our group and the State is how do we move that up? Is there a way that we could move the occupancy date to May so we can be in there starting our initial production this summer. So that’s what we’re currently looking at instead of starting production later on in 2022. We’d like to be in there this spring.”

The next question I asked was a general goal-oriented question. I asked it for two reasons. One is that diesel buses are incredibly bad for those riding in them. Another reason was because theses types of goal-oriented questions, I feel, are inspiring. They are challenging to answer but the answer itself is the source of inspiration.

I asked Fraser how many of these electric school buses he thought or hoped to have manufactured within the next five to ten years. He pointed out that no one has a definitive number, and that totally makes sense given that we don’t know what the demand will be.

“The initial goal is we see a path that with a base level of shift with 200-250 employees would sort of max out the facility one shift and we see that path in the next two-two and a half years is our goal. And that would allow us to get up in the 400-500 school buses a year. But ultimately, we would like to build up the facility. We have additional land that’s part of the deal that we can add.”

He explained that this land is solving the problem of what to do when they have maxed out the facility.

“Also, in terms of doing multiple shifts, we see a path that in three or four years we could be building a thousands vehicles a year. That’s kind of what I would call mid term long term goal.”

Fraser and I started talking about how pollution from diesel buses affect the students riding them. I remember hating the smell of fuel on school buses, and later on public transportation. Fraser explained that from kindergarten to grade six people are most impacted by the NOx emissions from diesel and particulate matter (PM2).

“PM2.5 actually flows through your lung membranes. So can you imagine particulate matter getting into the bloodstream of a child that’s six or seven years old? The research shows that they’re subject to higher incidence of lung cancer, asthma, respiratory illness plus on top of that they’re getting getting school already tired. Especially if they have a 45-minute ride and they’re exposed to the NOx emissions and particulate matter, they’re not getting to school refreshed. They’re already fatigued from being on this vehicle.

“For me personally, when I’m out on demonstrations and out talking to school districts or various stakeholders that come out when you do a demo — everybody shows up — is this is really a zero emission vehicle. We don’t say it’s a zero-emission solution because we can’t control the power we get into the facility or where that comes from or how its derived but vehicle itself is.

“But realize there’s a bigger health and safety issue for the children going to the school. And when you start talking to them about it and they do their research and come back and say in some cases they had no idea. And it changes the priority where they’re saying ‘okay this isn’t a matter that we need to talk amongst ourselves about how do we do fundraising or how do we get this award for electrifying our fleet.’ We need to be having a dialogue within our schools that this has to change and how quickly can we change it for the betterment of our student body.”

GreenPower Motors BEAST

The BEAST zero-emissions all-electric school bus. Photo by GreenPower Motors, used with permission.

Something else Fraser shared was that when GreenPower listed on Nasdaq in the fall of 2020, they announced that they were building five of their type D school buses a month.

“It sounds like a drop in the bucket and it is. We’ve then doubled that. In January–February 2021, a year ago, to ten a month. It takes us a year to build the way we build now, our type D school bus. So we needed a whole different way of approaching this which is what West Virginia does for us. We can scale up and we can build faster. And we can build higher quality if not better quality product even than what we’re doing today which is fantastic.

“To put that into context, there’s almost 500,000 school buses — the type A,C and D — operating across the nation and there’s 40,000 new school buses sold each year. And none of them are all-electric. Everybody’s positioned right now in terms of all of our competitors of GreenPower before the West Virginia deal it might be 500. So that’s point one of one percent of the nations’ fleet of school buses that has a production capability.

“What West Virginia does is helps us move to a leadership role and we can show a path to faster electrification and certainly some states like New York are stepping up and saying ‘we want our school bus fleet to be fully electric by 2035’ and a few others help like that and I think we can have much more meaningful deployments of all electric school buses.

“There’s just a ton of opportunity to really grow this space but I think the OEMs like ourselves have to show the kind of role or leadership in getting that done.”

 

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Written By

Johnna owns less than one share of $TSLA currently and supports Tesla's mission. She also gardens, collects interesting minerals and can be found on TikTok

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