Montgomery County in Maryland is now the site of the largest transit bus charging station and microgrid in America. It currently has the largest fleet of electric school buses in the nation and is planning for all 70 of the buses in its county transit system to be electric by 2026.
All those electric buses will require lots of electricity to keep them charged up and serving the community. Then there is the question of how to pay for all this. Lots of people run around like chickens with their heads cut off screaming that electric vehicles are going to break the grid. But opportunities are all around us. What are insurmountable challenges to some are invitations to think differently and profit from new ideas for others.
The new Brookville Smart Energy Bus Depot is a combination of chargers, solar panels, battery storage units, and sophisticated microgrid software put together by AlphaStruxture — a partnership between Schneider Electric and private equity firm Carlyle Group. It has financed the project in exchange for monthly energy-as-a-service payments from the county.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. AlphaStruxture is not doing this out of altruism. They are in it to make a buck, just like everyone else in the world. The trick is, by managing the flow of electricity into and out of all those bus batteries as well as the output of the 1.6 megawatt array of solar panels on the roof of the depot, the 3 MWh storage battery onsite, and payments for grid stabilization services from local utility company Pepco, AlphaStuxture is able to deliver the chargers and microgrid as no cost to Montgomery County and still have enough left over to meet their own revenue needs. Sweet!
The buses have to be able to function under all circumstances, of course, and so there is also 1.8 MW of electricity available from natural gas powered generators onsite to keep them charged even if there is a sustained grid outage or lack of sunshine.
The Brookville microgrid is “a national model for municipalities and private fleet owners…to efficiently deploy the charging infrastructure and distributed energy resources that the energy transition requires,” AlphaStruxure CEO Juan Macias said at Monday’s ribbon-cutting event, according to Canary Media.
Montgomery County executive Marc Elrich noted that the Brookville microgrid is the third solar-powered transit bus charging depot in the country to date. The first was built by the Antelope Valley Transit Authority in California and the second by Vineyard Transit Authority, which serves the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.
But a growing number of transit agencies are building solar panels and backup batteries into their bus depots to help provide clean, self-generated power for their growing electric bus fleets. Many are being built in sunny and solar-rich California, but others are being developed in markets with fewer incentives for solar power.
Maryland has taken an early lead in terms of the sheer number of electric buses being charged in one place. Beyond the Brookville project, Montgomery County is also the home of the single-largest deployment of electric school buses in the country. Along with setting aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation and building, Maryland’s recently passed Climate Solutions Now Act sets specific targets for the state’s bus fleet to be made up of at least 50% zero-emissions vehicles by 2030.
Finding ways for the existing power grid to handle enormous new loads is a key challenge for scaling up electric bus fleets. Installing solar panels to provide power when the sun is shining is one step to reducing those grid pressures, and storing that power in batteries for when the sun isn’t shining is another.
Structuring these systems as stand-alone microgrids adds the benefit of resiliency to this on-site energy equation. At the same time, electric buses themselves can serve as backup batteries during grid emergencies when they’re not driving their routes.
All of this does require careful coordination of charging schedules with the interplay of on-site and grid-supplied power, Canary Media says. “It is a complex and very quickly evolving landscape,” said Greg Hintler, US managing director for Mobility House, the German company that’s managing the charging systems at the Brookville depot. “There’s a lot of work we as an industry still have to do around standardization and interoperability, and making sure our solutions can work together for the customers and for the fleets.”
Just how to translate these future gains into reduced upfront costs for electric buses — which are still quite a bit more expensive than their diesel-fueled counterparts — is a major challenge for accelerating the shift to electric transit. But as more projects like the Brookville depot are built, the blueprint for making it happen could become more standardized, lowering costs for transit agencies looking at their own electrification options.
Those who worry about EVs breaking the grid are partially correct — if the process involves building new thermal generating stations and transmission lines, that is. But what they fail to appreciate is that microgrids shift conventional thinking to focus on making electricity at the point where it is used — not tens, or hundreds, or thousands of miles away.
People used to think commercial air travel would never catch on or that humans would never walk on the moon. The power of creative thinking can construct solutions to all sorts of challenges — if we let it.
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