Education

Electric school buses roll out in pilot project in 3 Vermont districts

An electric school bus parked at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax on Oct. 28, 2021. The bus is part of a statewide pilot program. Photo courtesy of Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

Three Vermont school districts are part of an electric bus pilot program to help determine if the vehicles are practical for year-round use across the state.

The Champlain Valley School District and Franklin West Supervisory Union have been running two electric buses each since the start of the 2021-22 school year, and the Barre Unified Union School District is set to receive two buses in November.

One transit agency, the Rutland-based Marble Valley Regional Transit District, is also part of the pilot program and should get its buses by early next year. Unlike the others, these will not be school buses but rather electric transit buses.

The total cost of the pilot is about $4 million, said Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, a consulting manager at the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., which is administering the program.

About $3 million comes from Vermont’s share of the national Volkswagen “clean diesel” fraud settlement, she said. The school districts provided funding equal to the cost of a replacement diesel bus, and the transit agency covered 25% of total project costs.

“I think what’s really important to most of the people that are involved with this project,” Wallace-Brodeur said, “is the opportunity to reduce emissions — and the diesel fumes — that kids and the communities are impacted by.”

The program will test buses from three different companies. Champlain Valley and Barre Unified schools chose buses from the Canada-based Lion Electric Co., while Franklin West schools chose Blue Bird Corp., based in Fort Valley, Georgia. The Marble Valley Regional Transit District selected buses from Gillig, a California-based manufacturer.

Electric buses run quieter and emit fewer greenhouse gases, particulate matter and nitrogen oxide emissions than their diesel counterparts, according to a statement from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. Annual greenhouse gas emissions for the new school buses are expected to be about 97% lower than diesel buses.

Over the lifetime of a bus, the agency said, schools in the pilot program could save up to $36,000 in fuel costs compared to a diesel vehicle. According to Wallace-Brodeur, the new buses also should provide some savings in terms of maintenance costs.


Still, she said, electric school buses are relatively expensive compared to their diesel counterparts. A typical diesel-powered bus costs about $90,000, Wallace-Brodeur said, while the buses in the pilot program cost between $336,000 and $350,000. 

On top of that, each bus charger for the program costs about $12,000, she said. 

The Vermont Energy Investment Corp. plans to spend a year tracking emission savings from the program and monitoring the buses’ performance, Wallace-Brodeur said. 

Barry Russell, transportation supervisor for the Champlain Valley School District, said students have been enjoying the quieter ride on the new Lion Electric Co. buses.

The buses have 100-mile battery packs, he said, but they can’t travel 100 miles between charges because of variables along the routes, such as hills. 

Cold weather also shortens the battery range. 

“As a pilot program, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, is how far they’ll go in the wintertime,” Russell said. “And how much you lose because of the cold.” 

One of the buses is running routes that total about 90 miles a day, and the other runs about 50 miles daily. The former is set up to “push the limit,” he said, noting its driver must recharge during the day to complete his routes.

Russell said the biggest challenge with electric buses is not the vehicles themselves, but having the infrastructure to charge them. 

The district has two chargers at the Allen Brook School in Williston and plans to install a third at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg.

“We have 60 buses,” he said. “If they were all electric, that’s a big issue.”

Russell also noted that the district’s new buses are not entirely electric, because they use an external, diesel-powered heating system. If they were to heat the buses with battery power, he said, the vehicles’ range would be cut almost in half.

This heating system also requires a relatively small amount of fuel, Russell said. He estimated it would use 70 gallons of diesel for the entire winter, whereas an entire diesel-powered bus would use up a 100-gallon tank of fuel every week. 

“There’s some thinking to do with these buses,” said Patsy Parker, transportation supervisor at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax, which is part of the Franklin West Supervisory Union. “You have to pay attention and tend to them every trip.”

Wallace-Brodeur, of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., said she hopes the pilot program shows that electric buses can work for schools in many different conditions.

“Hopefully, it’s going to lay the groundwork for greater electric school bus adoption in the state of Vermont,” she said. “That would be a really big success.”

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.

Email: [email protected]

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