Electric school buses roll into rural Michigan

New electric school buses are beginning to roll into selected school districts across rural Michigan, part of the federal Clean School Bus Rebate Program. 

At the top of the list is Pellston in northern lower Michigan. The 248-square-mile school district, which lies east of Lake Michigan, received its new buses over the school system's Christmas break.

The buses will hit roads as soon as Consumers Energy finishes fine-tuning the district’s electrical service.

“We are poised for an incredible trial run with electric vehicles, replacing 80 percent of our routes with all electric buses,” Stephen C. Seelye, superintendent of Pellston Public Schools, says. “I’m thrilled for this opportunity and the benefits it will bring to our students and our school district.”

It may be next school year before L’Anse Area Schools overlooking the Keweenaw Bay in the Upper Peninsula gets delivery of its buses — but the school district’s 600 students and staff there are every bit as excited by the potential of green power.

 In all, 25 Michigan school districts will get 138 new electric school buses as part of the program. Other rural districts include Cassopolis Public Schools, Chesaning Union Schools, Pentwater Public School District – all in the lower Peninsula. And Bessemer Area School District and Bay Mills Ojibwe Charter School in the U.P.

Nationally, 99 percent of the school districts chosen for grants across the country serve low-income, rural, and tribal students.

The Clean School Bus grants support Michigan’s first large influx of electric school buses since September 2019, when the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy awarded $4.2 million to support the purchase of 17 electric school buses and charging stations to serve seven Michigan school districts, replacing 17 polluting diesel buses.

The goal of the federal program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money for school districts and produce cleaner air by replacing older, heavily polluting school buses with electric options.

The EPA’s five-year, $5 billion program, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, awarded nearly $1 billion in 2022 to support the purchase of more than 2,400 clean-powered buses nationwide with grants of up to $375,000 per bus, plus $20,000 for charging infrastructure. 

The new buses also move Michigan closer to the future envisioned in the MI Healthy Climate Plan, Michigan’s roadmap to a prosperous, carbon-neutral economy by 2050, says Jeff Johnston, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The plan calls for the infrastructure necessary to support 2 million electric vehicles on Michigan roads by 2030, along with a 15 percent annual increase in access to clean transportation including public transit.
Public school buses collectively form America’s largest transit system.

 The Environmental Protection Agency solicited rebate applications for $500 million through the 2022 Clean School Bus Rebates, which prioritize low-income, rural, and Tribal communities.

Johnston says rural districts were prioritized in this round of grant awards because of the impact the change could have in large swaths of the state.

“In rural districts with a large proportion of students bused from over a large geographical area, replacing diesel buses with electric buses can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality,” he says. “Diesel air pollution is linked to asthma and other conditions that harm students’ health. Phasing out these diesel engines will ensure cleaner air for students, bus drivers, and school staff working near bus loading areas, and out in the communities these buses drive through each day.” 

In addition, he notes, “the grants also free up rural districts’ limited resources for other school expenses.”
Pellston Public Schools

Seelye jumped at the chance to participate in the grant program when he noticed that Pellston was among the school districts prioritized for the grant funding.

“It is my job to pursue everything I possibly can to benefit our students and our community,” he says, and the electric buses are likely to save the district thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs.

The savings are considerable. The bus manufacturer, Lion Electric, estimates that Pellston will see an 80 percent energy reduction. That would equate to an annual savings of about $33,000 for the school district. The district has five bus routes and about 200 of the 461 students use school transportation. 

One of the new electric buses parked at Pellston Public Schools. The buses arrived during holiday break.

“Their estimated reduction in maintenance cost is 60 percent— for our district that would be an annual savings of $23,812 based on last year’s costs,” the superintendent says.

Last school year the Pellston district used 11,442 gallons of diesel, an average of 2,288 gallons per bus; spent $41,488 in gas, oil and grease; spent $11,430 to an on-site light duty mechanic and $6,139 to the mobile repair service. In addition the district spent $22,118.29 in parts last year. 

Pellston was awarded the EPA grant to purchase four new electric school buses. The district chose the 71-passenger Lion C buses, among the first to be manufactured at Lion’s new Joliet, Illinois, factory. 

The district owns nine school buses, with a tenth bus – a new diesel one — that was ordered before the grant was awarded. As a condition of the grant, the district will sell a diesel bus for each of the new buses it receives. Pellston will sell two 2014 and two 2015 school buses. 

Upper Peninsula 

Three Upper Peninsula school districts— L’Anse, Bessemer and the Ojibwe Charter School received electric buses.

In L’Anse, school superintendent Susan Tollefson is excited by the potential the new buses represent in savings for the district as well as the opportunity for kids to enjoy brand new buses instead of the usual hand-me-downs.

With the new buses, the district – located in the western U.P.  — will help manufacturers test the vehicles under cold rural conditions. The cold is a concern because of the battery power that is sucked by heating the vehicles. 

“They want to be how they function in a real application setting,” the superintendent says. “We're kind of on the cutting edge of getting that information to the manufacturers so they can make improvements. They want to know how they function in a real application setting. So, it's just exciting.”

The L’Anse district has 10 buses, used for six daily bus routes and sports team runs over the district’s 700 square miles.

The district always has two extra buses on hand, so hypothetically, if the electric buses failed the challenge of a couple of weeks of below-zero temperatures, the extras could be subbed in. That’s not expected to happen, however.

“Before applying for the grant, I did a little research and I found a district in Alaska that had been using electric buses  … so some have had success with them in the colder climates, “ she says. 

Charging stations

Pellston’s Seelye says the EPA grant also allocated $20,000 per charging station. “We were able to get the type 3 fast-charging stations and still be under budget,” he says. A local electrician was hired to install the chargers.

An up-close look at a bus charging connection.
Seelye also had to work with the district’s electric provider, Consumers Energy. The company’s Power MI Fleet program pays for the service upgrade that will be needed at the bus garage. 

The new electric buses come with an eight-year warranty on the batteries and an eight-year warranty on the motors. The exterior materials of these buses are made from a rust-free material. 

“So, it has been a great deal of leg work” Seelye says, “but our total cost of ownership to get the new buses has been zero dollars.” 

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
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