Repowering 10,000 school buses & transitioning the nation’s 500,000 yellow school buses from diesel to electric presents some daunting math. Currently 95% run on diesel, 4% on propane, and less than 1% are electric.
If we started replacing each of the 35,000 diesel buses that turnover annually with an electric bus today, it would still take 15 years to transition the whole fleet. But because a new electric bus currently costs two-to-three times as much as a diesel one, only 1-2% of new buses come off the line with a plug and our timeline for full electrification stretches far into the future.
At the end of 2021, some big news provided hope for a new approach: instead of replacing an diesel school bus with a brand-new electric bus, the idea of converting some portion of existing bus fleet to electric power took off.
“It’s impossible to convert school bus fleets to electric with just new replacements,” says Tony Fairweather, CEO of SEA Electric. He believes that to get to an entire fleet of electric school buses anytime soon, we’ll need to convert 50% of existing diesel buses to run on clean electrons. SEA Electric and Midwest Transit Equipment (MTE) recently announced a plan to do just that and convert 10,000 diesel school buses to electric. If successful, this partnership could pioneer a mass scale repowering model where existing school buses get converted to electric for a fraction of the cost of a new electric school bus.
Electric Bus Conversions and Repowers
Over the past couple of years, diesel to electric retrofits (aka “repowers”) have demonstrated the potential to rapidly and cost-effectively electrify fleets. New York City’s first electric school buses were repowered, and companies like UES, Lightning E-motors, Bison EV, and Legacy EV have been laying the groundwork for retrofitting internal combustion engine vehicles for some time. But the MTE/SEA Electric deal will electrify buses on a whole new scale. It will take a trickle of repower projects and open the floodgates to deploying electric school buses in the thousands.
SEA Electric is based in Australia and has been converting a variety of fleet vehicles — from garbage trucks in New Zealand, to box trucks in Iowa — to electric since 2014. Fairweather notes how starting in a country like Australia, which has no incentives for electric vehicles, forced SEA Electric to be cutting edge and price-competitive to stay alive.
The company doesn’t make batteries or motors, but instead organizes a kit (machinery combined with a patented software) and engineers a conversion process. SEA Electric will apply its repowering kits to school buses for the first time as part of this deal. MTE will ship the buses (with internal combustion engines already removed) to certified “outfitters” in Indiana, North Carolina, and Minnesota who have assembly lines to complete the repowers. These former diesel school buses will receive new drivetrains, 138 kWh batteries, and come off the line as next-to-new electric buses. All of this for a price well under $100,000 — which is about a quarter of the cost of a new electric school bus. And unlike virtually every other purchased electric school bus, this deal also won’t require any incentives.
Based in Illinois, MTE is a large (its website says the biggest in the nation) distributor of buses. with over 400 employees — it sells and leases thousands of new/used school buses every year. MTE’s short term school bus leases typically last between one-to-four years and then the company takes the buses back for refurbishment. It’s at this point that SEA Electric will repower the vehicles.
Electrifying buses at this scale presents an important opportunity for reducing costs. Instead of having to build relationships with the 13,000 school districts across the country, repower manufacturers like SEA Electric can achieve a large scale of conversions by partnering with just a company like MTE. The large scale of conversions with MTE school buses is a reason SEA Electric can electrify a school bus for a quarter of the cost of a new electric bus.
SEA Electric and MTE plan to repower 400 buses in the first year of this five-year contract. If all goes well, the remaining 9,600 would be back-loaded to the final four years of the agreement. Even 400 repowered electric buses increases the number of electric buses currently on the road by 50%. The first repowered electric buses are scheduled to start rolling off the line this spring.
If both companies are successful and prove the model of price competitive, and repowering of diesel to electric school buses can conducted through dealerships, it could radically alter the trajectory that previously pushed school bus electrification too far into the future.
Huge thanks to the incredible nonprofit Forth for being my work home for the past three years and funding me to write articles on transportation electrification. Thanks also to Kevin Friedman and Akanksha Dureja for their help in editing this article.
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