PEORIA — Electric school buses are starting to appear in central Illinois, and more are on the way thanks to a billion-dollar federal grant.
Producing zero emissions, the buses are a great choice for the environment and children’s health, but critics worry that the technology and infrastructure are not ready for widespread adoption.
The administrators of a school district in Peoria County learned fairly quickly that electricity had its limits. Hollis Consolidated School District got an all-new electric school bus in 2020 with settlement money from the Edwards Coal Power Plant lawsuit. Although the bus works great for the district’s daily 30-mile route, it left a group of children stranded on a trip to Tanners Orchard in 2021.
“The heater actually affects the battery quite a bit,” said Hollis Schools superintendent Chad Jones. “It drains the battery faster than if it weren’t on.”
It was a chilly October day when the group set off for a 45 minute trip to Tanners, and the bus had already been used to take the children to school that morning. By the time they arrived at Tanners, the bus needed to be recharged. There were no chargers at the orchard, so the driver went elsewhere and eventually found one at the Grand Prairie Hy-Vee. But it was not a fast charger and the driver waited with the bus most of the day.
“I had to call First Student, which is our third-party bus company here in Bartonville, and I sent a bus to pick up the kids when they were ready,” Jones said.
Although the small district only needs one bus, they now have two. The second bus is powered by diesel.
“As much as I love the electric bus, it’s kind of tough when you can’t take it from my school in Riverview, which is in East Peoria, because you think you’re going to run out of battery,” Jones said. “Maybe at the end of the day, when everyone has an electric bus and everyone has a charging station, I can send my teams to Riverview and they have a charger, and they can charge while the game is unfolding, and you have enough battery power to go home.
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More electric school buses are on the way
While electric school buses are rare in central Illinois, that’s about to change. The first round of funding for the Biden administration’s $1 billion Clean School Bus program has been doled out, and two districts in central Illinois will soon integrate electric into their fleets. The Galesburg Community Unified School District secured more than $9 million to purchase 23 buses, and $2.675 million was awarded to Williamsfield Schools for seven buses.
Williamsfield Superintendent Tim Farquer is a proponent of electric buses. When the district receives its new buses, likely around the time school starts next year, all nine but one of its fleet will be powered by electricity.
“We have already purchased a re-motorized bus which we should have in January. It’s a 2015 diesel bus that they removed the engine from and installed an electric motor battery,” Farquer said. “Then we’ll stick with a diesel for longer runs, until the infrastructure is built statewide.”
Health and environmental benefits
Health benefits are the main reason Williamsfield is banking on electric school buses, Farquer said.
“If there is a technology that can provide a healthier environment for our children, if it’s viable technology, we should deploy it,” he said. “And it is well documented that especially children with asthma – this rate is only increasing – they are the ones who suffer the most when they take a diesel bus to and from school. Anyone who has spent any time on the bus service in the winter when there are 12 or 15 of these buses hanging around outside the school, I mean, it can choke you.
The benefits of electric buses go beyond the school and extend to the community. During periods of low usage, such as the summer when the children are not in school, the neighborhood will produce a surplus of solar energy that can be used by the community. This will reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants and was a key reason the district chose to install solar panels to power its buses, Farquer said.
“If we’re not electrifying in a way that supports renewables, all we’re doing is asking them to dump more coal into the Powerton Power plant,” he said.
The district sets an example for students and the community in responsible energy use. Being able to positively impact the environment was almost as important a goal as positively impacting student health, Farquer said.
“We’re teaching about the dangers of carbon emissions, and we’re experiencing more extreme weather. If we don’t do everything we can to reduce the emissions that science says are driving these climate events , then we just don’t live up to what we say we need to do.
What about Peoria schools?
Although Peoria Public Schools were not among the 15 Illinois school districts named in the first round of federal funding, they expect to be chosen in subsequent rounds. Planning is already underway to add a few electric vehicles to their fleet of 100.
There’s a lot to think about when adding electric buses to a fleet. Josh Collins, director of transportation and fleet services for Peoria Public Schools, weighed the pros and cons of the new technology.
One downside is the cost. While federal grant money makes adopting new technology possible for school districts now, what will happen in the future?
Electric buses will need new batteries when they’re around nine years old — batteries currently cost around $90,000 — and buses are usually replaced when they’re around 15 years old, Collins said. PPS buys used diesel buses, which typically cost between $70,000 and $80,000, against the cost of a new electric bus, $350,000. If federal funds aren’t available when batteries and buses begin to age, districts could end up reverting to diesel fleets in the future, Collins said.
Despite these considerations, Collins said he was disappointed the district was not named in the grant.
“I was excited about the opportunity to be at the forefront of getting this technology and the ability to test this technology and then ensure that our students and our families enjoy the benefits of electric vehicles, at namely improved air quality,” Collins said. . “We have areas in our city that have suffered from heavy pollution and poor air quality. From that perspective, yes, it would be helpful for Peoria Public Schools, our students and their families, d to have a low-emission vehicle.
Leslie Renken can be reached at (309) 370-5087 or [email protected] Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.