Plugged-in pioneers for education transportation
Minnkota joined West Fargo Public Schools and its partners to unveil North Dakota's first all-electric school bus.
As nearly 50 adults settled into the classic blue school bus seats of West Fargo Public Schools’ (WFPS) newest addition to the fleet, transportation director Brad Redmond’s voice sounded through the bus speaker system.
“The bus is now on,” he said.
“What?” answered a handful of riders, looking at each other with an edge of awe and skepticism. The disbelief came from the fact that although the school bus had been powered up, there was no loud diesel rumble, no vibrating seats, no indication of automotive life at all.
“Isn’t that quiet?” Redmond replied with a smile.
This was the inaugural ride of the school district’s Blue Bird Vision Electric, an all-electric bus that will begin delivering students to and from class this fall. The electric bus is the first in the state, made possible for WFPS through a partnership with Cass County Electric Cooperative (in conjunction with Minnkota Power Cooperative), the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future and the North Dakota Department of Commerce.
The bus – uniquely numbered e16 in a fleet of 54 – boasts up to 120 miles of range, can recharge onsite in under eight hours and emits zero emissions.
At a ribbon-cutting event on June 3, Redmond joined his project partners in describing the road to bus electrification to a crowd of local leaders, educators, cooperatives, and other interested organizations and community members.
“Each year, our district fleet averages 750,000 miles transporting our students,” Redmond said. He explained that the district’s $4 million transportation budget covers purchasing, maintenance and staffing of 62 routes.
Last fall, in an effort to address costs and energy concerns, the school board considered a bid for an electric school bus and ultimately awarded the bid to Hartley’s School Buses. “I hope that West Fargo Public Schools Bus e16 will prove to be a beneficial investment for our North Dakotans,” Redmond said.
Cass County Electric president and CEO Marshal Albright thanked WFPS for sharing their vision to bring this project to fruition. “One of the reasons we look at electric vehicles to move forward is really to provide a healthy and safe environment for the students who ride the bus, to increase the awareness of electric vehicles and to look at the performance of large electric utility vehicles like the bus,” he said.
“Even a few years ago the idea of having an all-electric school bus seemed pretty futuristic. But we see today that this isn’t the bus of the future. It’s the bus of now,” said Ben Fladhammer, Minnkota communications manager. “While this is the state’s first electric school bus, we’re confident it won’t be the last.”
Luke Hellier of the Coalition for a Secure Energy Future noted that 14,000 people in North Dakota work in the lignite coal industry, and that this kind of technology will help drive demand in the next generation. “Each time it’s plugged in, the electricity that’s being consumed is going to help our region’s economy,” he said.
After cutting the bus’s ceremonial ribbon and loading up for a ride around West Fargo, Redmond explained to passengers that WFPS estimates it will spend only 9 cents per mile traveled using electricity. The diesel counterpart costs 40-44 cents per mile to power. The bus can run in temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero. However, overall costs may shift during the frigid months.
“The heating system in here will draw electricity,” Redmond said. “The batteries are heated in the winter and cooled in the summer. That could cause around a 40% reduction in mileage.”
The school district anticipates it will save around 70% in energy costs and 70-80% in maintenance costs, as electric transportation doesn’t need regular oil changes, filter replacements or transmission tune-ups.
Cass County Electric member John Bagu and his nine-year-old daughter Mira – who may be an electric bus passenger when she begins third grade this fall – came along for the inaugural cruise. They were wowed by how quiet, powerful and clean the ride was.
“It was very much like our electric car, which is an incredible statement, because our car is so small and this is so big,” John said. “The fact that you can take the same technology and put it on a 70-seat bus is incredible.”
The WFPS transportation department plans to collect data during the bus’s first year on the route and compare costs and efficiency to diesel buses purchased at the same time. If funding allows, the district hopes to add more electric vehicles to the fleet in the future.
“Brad and West Fargo are pioneers for the Midwest,” said Blue Bird’s Jim Johnson. “This is the first electric bus that Blue Bird has delivered outside the state of California. West Fargo said, ‘Let’s bring it to one of the coldest places in the country – we’re going to make it work here.’”
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