Photo courtesy of Midwest Transit Equipment.

Want Electric School Buses? Been Waitlisted? Consider A Repower

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The nation’s appetite for electric school buses is growing in a way that suggests a school bus figuratively bursting at the seams with hundreds of students all trying to make the same time to class. Four times more school bus fleets applied for federal funding for electric school buses in 2022 than the first round of EPA’s Clean School Bus Program funding could accommodate with its first $1 billion dollar round of rebates. The waitlist, which is the applicant list minus those that won grants, is 71 pages long. It’s important to note, very few of the schools on that list will get rebates.

Courtesy of Logan Bus Company.

Many of the applicant districts are in states like Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, and New York, which have emission reduction or electric school bus mandates. Austin Independent School District in Texas, which is on the waitlist, recently committed to operating an all electric fleet by 2035. Similar bills are in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington state.

New electric school buses (ESBs) cost three times more than a new diesel bus, and can take a year or more from order to arrival. Many districts have no time to wait. But school buses repowered with electric drivetrains are different.

In the transit bus space, Complete Coach Works (CCW) has repowered 65 buses from diesel to electric since 2015, logging more than 3 million repowered miles across numerous fleets, including IndyGo in Indianapolis, Indiana. “Our repowers cost just over half a new electric bus,” said Brad Carson, CCW’s Chief Operating Officer. He noted, however, that school buses are regulated differently than transit buses and that it’s not yet economical yet for CCW to repower school buses.

In 2021, New York-based Logan Bus Company partnered with nearby Unique Electric Solutions (UES) on a repowered Blue Bird Type C school bus. To date, Logan Bus has three repowers that have logged more than 2100 miles moving students in multiple school districts, performing well enough to warrant an order for two more. “We want to be the company that went through all the hiccups already,” said Corey Muirhead Logan Bus executive vice president.

The UES shop’s being in the same city means they quickly assist when issues arise, he added.

In December 2021, Midwest Transit Equipment (MTE), of Kankakee, Illinois, announced a 10,000 unit partnership with global electric drivetrain leader SEA Electric (SEA). SEA, an Australian company with a global reach. It has logged more than two million miles in commercial truck and van electrification. The companies’ first type C school bus repowers are slated to hit the road in Illinois this year.

Current Repower Options

  • MTE (Kankakee, Illinios) and SEA Electric (Grimes, Iowa)
    Marketed as “transformations,” SEA is repowering used IC (formerly International) Type C buses. The work is performed at their shop in Grimes, Iowa. Midwest Transit has a significant inventory ready for transformation.
  • Unique Electric Solutions (Holbrook, New York)
    Marketed as “conversions,” UES is the first to have repowers on the road: three, with two more on order.
  • Blue Bird (Macon, Georgia) and Lightning eMotors (Loveland, Colorado)
    Announced last fall and marketed as “repowers” with the first factory certified program, this team is targeting model years 2021 and newer. The companies claim thier approach helps districts who are hesitant to buy new buses with new gas or propane engines, for fear of them becoming obsolete. EPA’s 2022 Clean School Bus Rebates allows for reimbursement for the purchase of repowers in the same age range. See page 15 of the fall Q&A document from the EPA.
  • Optimal EV (Elkhart, Indiana and Plymoh, Michigan)
    As shown recently at the STN EXPO Reno, the company offers the E1 Repower electric cutaway chassis conversion with Proterra battery packs for small school buses built on the Ford E-450

Emerging repower vendors include Revo, Bison EV, and Pepper Motion, all with varying degrees of experience in repowering vehicles other than school buses, looking to now engage school bus fleets. Bison EV states it can perform the 2021 repowers that EPA will fund.

Three Big Letters (TCO)

Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), a key consideration for fleet managers, is where repowers show strong potential. Repowering is less than half the cost of buying new. More than 40 percent of diesel TCO is the cost of fuel. Electric motors are much more efficient than diesel engines. Depending on local prices of diesel and electricity in your location, the repower TCO may be at price parity with diesel right now, even without grants or incentives. Run a TCO calculator specific to your operation.

Broader cost issues around repowers include funding eligibility and warranties. As of this report, an EPA spokesperson said the agency had yet make a decision regarding repowers for future rounds of the Clean School Bus Program. Year two details are expected this spring. In the meantime, public feedback can be sent to cleanschoolbus@epa.gov.

Meanwhile, Blue Bird said student transporters need to exercise caution as it does not certify or endorse third-party aftermarket electrification repowers. “As with any aftermarket solution, installation of these powertrains fully voids the OEM warranty provided by Blue Bird, and is, therefore not recommended for school districts, where safety and reliability are the utmost importance” Britton Smith, senior vice president of electrification and chief strategy officer at Blue Bird, said.

The warranty question may loom large for districts that in past years did conversions from diesel to CNG and propane, without always getting satisfaction. MTE states the standard warranty on their transformed bus batteries is eight years, and five years or 100,000 miles on the propulsion system.

Michael Backman of UES, the only company with repowered school buses on the road at the time of this writing, reported negotiable warranties of five to eight years or longer “with many options available, just like new vehicles.” Backman noted that lack of transmissions, fluid lines, exhaust systems and many other parts means there are fewer reasons that warranties may come into play.

Bison EVRetrofits, meanwhile, is advertising warranty options of over 7 years or 300,000 miles, underwritten by OEM warranties and a global insurance-backed warranty on the batteries.

One transit bus fleet manager reported negotiating a warranty on a repowered bus purchase that includes a performance clause. For example, if the bus fails to be in service at least 20,000 miles every six months, a year is added to the warranty. As with all buses, location and geography have key roles in how warranty service plays out.

Repowering vs. Buying a Repower

Repowering changes the power source in a bus fleets own and will continue to use. Beaverton School District in Oregon is doing this in partnership with Forth, using a grant from the American Rescue Plan Act, with a 2008 Blue Bird Type C they currently own. In contrast, buying a repower, as in the MTE-SEA model, is purchasing a bus that has been converted (never owned). Either way, a subtle but pivotal factor in success is the confidence of your team.

Repowers by the Numbers

480,000 Total School Buses in the U.S.
$390,000 Average Cost of New Electric School Bus
$175,000 Average Cost of Repowered Electric School Bus
2,352 Number of new electric school buses that EPA funded in first round of Clean School Bus Program
4,704 Number of repowered ESBs that EPA could fund with same
amount of money
10-18 Months from order to delivery of a new electric school bus
3-4 Months from order to delivery of a repowered electric school bus

Challenges

Some mechanics object strongly to repowers, citing the unavailability of parts for older buses, and the unreliability of aging buses, in general. Consultant Nancy Jensen was former Driver Trainer for Twin Rivers Unified School District near Sacramento, California, which led the way for school bus electrification dating back to 2017. She pointed out that, “Charging infrastructure doesn’t get permitted or built any faster just because the electric bus is arriving faster.”

But then, many bus yards can fuel their first few ESBs with existing electricity, i.e., no time-consuming upgrades. Scott Sochaki, vice president of Sales at Midwest Transit Equipment explains, “All our transformed buses will be able to take both Level 2 and DC/FC charging. And all of them will be V2G (vehicle to grid) compatible.”

V2G, currently being piloted in a couple locations, is expected to eventually yield revenue, i.e. from utilities to districts with ESBs.

“Extending the life of a bus can be good, but it has to be done smartly,” added Jensen. “Drivers and kids don’t want to sit in worn seats or navigate worn switches no matter how new the drivetrain. The idea is to make the bus feel new, regardless of age, and get 10+ years of zero tailpipe emission use.”

In Illinois, repowers and repowering are both depreciable expenses on the annual transportation claim. In many cases, this means the district will be reimbursed at least half of their costs.

It seems there’s a sweet spot for repowering: buses early in mid-life yet not too old, and a model common in a given region so companies can do it efficiently and inexpensively.

“The model years 2015-2017 seem to be the sweet spot to transform right now. Our goal is to deliver a perfect bus so you can’t tell the difference from new,” says Sochacki, while outlining their approach to repowering as more of a transformation.

The math supports a healthy mix of new and repowered.

Advocacy & Support

Leading ESB advocacy groups see value in repowers. The World Resources Institute’s data-driven, equity-conscious Electric School Bus Initiative states: “The technology is compelling and worth considering including in programs.” WRI is currently compiling an article on repowers. The equity-driven Alliance For Electric School Buses “is supportive of school bus stakeholders exploring repowers.” CALSTART plans to include repowers in its major upcoming report on ESBs. Jobs To Move America explicitly supports repowers. As repowering expands with portable kit models such as SEA’s, the practice can create clean energy jobs in local communities.

Air quality standards are growing stricter in many states, to where the costs of keeping diesel buses compliant are prohibitive. One dealer (in a non-mandated state) who has devoted their career to diesel buses states it may be impossible to buy or sell them in a decade.

Repowering diesel buses with electric drivetrains is new, yet not new. It’s well proven in transit buses running year-round, often 12 hours/day, but new in school buses that run 180 days a year, about six hours/day. Some see risk in the repower path, but others see safety. With four states and a large Texas school district working on emission reduction timelines, repowers have become sharply relevant. Muirhead states, “The only way to meet our mandated deadline [to eliminate diesel school buses from New York fleets] is with a healthy mix of new and repowered ESBs.”

The districts on the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program’s waitlist have viable repower options to consider.

Alison Wiley is the founder of the Electric School Bus Newsletter, and a cofounder of Women Accelerating School Bus Electrification. Tim Farquer is the Superintendent of Williamsfield Schools in central Illinois, and cofounder of the Bus To Grid Initiative. He serves as a consultant to the World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative, and expects to receive his first repowered ESB this spring.

Reprinted with permission from the March 2023 edition of School Transportation News. All rights reserved.
If desired, contact editor Ryan Gray at ryan@snonline.com


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