Article | March 28, 2024
8 Tips For Common Electric School Bus Charging Challenges

Installing charging infrastructure is one of the most important parts of deploying an electric school bus fleet. We have tips for common problems and equity considerations.

Electric school buses charge in a parking lot, while a person walks nearby.

Are you getting ready to install electric school bus charging infrastructure as part of your school district’s journey to clean rides? You have come to the right place. We have tips and solutions to help school districts and private fleet operators save time and money building out infrastructure to support new electric school buses (ESBs) so you can realize cleaner air and lower fuel costs faster, and support equity goals.

Strong partnerships are vital for deploying ESBs, especially when installing charging infrastructure. Working early to engage with your electric utility, internal stakeholders and local organizations will save time, effort and money over your project and will help support equitable processes and outcomes. Below are eight top tips to help avoid challenges when deploying charging infrastructure, as well as some additional resources we recommend reviewing.

Challenge: You are not sure what type of chargers you need for your vehicles

Charging your ESBs will be a regular, ongoing process. Evaluating the right mix of chargers for your fleet is a key step to ensure your fleet is always charged without over-spending on equipment. You will want to consider current needs and how to plan for future growth. And if you have any interest in utilizing your ESBs to provide power — either to the grid or to buildings in an emergency — there are additional constraints on compatible chargers.

  • 💡 Tip: pick the right chargers. Most ESBs will be stationary long enough to receive their power from Level 2 (AC) charging, so this can be a great place to start. Certain routes or situations may require faster power delivery from Level 3 (DC Fast Charging) which charges ESBs faster but can increase electricity demand and costs. Level 3 DC Fast Chargers may also extend the time needed for installations and increase equipment costs. Be sure to review which chargers work for your ESB with your dealer or the manufacturer, as some lower-level AC chargers may not be compatible, and different chargers may have higher power output than others while looking very similar.
  • 💡 Tip: plan ahead for additional uses. Some ESBs can provide power back to the grid or to a specific load through a bi-directional charger. If you are interested in having your ESBs do so, be sure your chargers are capable and check with your utility whether there are any programs active or in design in your area. As well, speak with your local emergency management office about agreements where your ESBs might be able to provide power in lieu of diesel generators during an emergency. This would reduce the cost of and pollution from burning diesel, and may also provide additional avenues for funding ESBs and associated infrastructure.

Our Electric School Bus U.S. Buyer's Guide has more information on different ESBs and compatible equipment.

Challenge: Demand charges from powering your ESBs have raised your utility bills

Adding charging for ESBs can pull significantly more energy from the grid if left to charge whenever the ESB is plugged in. This can incur much higher costs on your electric bill than is necessary — depending on your electric rate with your utility — reducing the fuel savings from operating your ESB.

  • 💡 Tip: manage your charging. ESBs are a great candidate for managed charging, which is the process in which the time and power level of charging are controlled remotely to maximize benefits to the customer and the electric grid, and which can save money in a few ways. First, electrical use can be kept below a given level to reduce charging peaks and demand charges. Power can also be delivered during lower-cost hours if you are under a time-of-use (TOU) rate with your electric utility. Reducing the number of buses charging at the same time can also reduce the cost of infrastructure upgrades. Investment in lower-level charging ports can lower the burden on drivers as they can simply plug in the vehicle without needing to worry about the order or hour knowing that the buses will charge overnight. Be sure to discuss rate options with your utility to understand how managed charging can save money on demand and time-of-use costs. The Electric School Bus Charge Management Software Catalog can help you compare and explore different provider options, pricing and more.
  • 💡 Tip: reduce other site loads. Upgrading electrical equipment to serve ESBs adds to a site’s overall electricity requirement (a.k.a. demand). This may incur additional demand charges from your utility, and will also require larger, more expensive equipment to be installed to deliver more power to fuel your site and your vehicles. Conducting an energy audit at your site can help you identify areas where you might be able to improve electrical efficiency and your demand by decreasing your overall energy use. Potential methods to reduce site load include swapping depot lighting to LEDs or improving insulation at onsite buildings to reduce heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) requirements.

Challenge: Construction for chargers can be longer and more expensive than expected

Between planning, permitting, excavation and equipment procurement, the time and cost of installing new electric vehicle chargers quickly adds up. Beyond this, long lead times for equipment and construction can hinder the timeline for ESBs deployment if you don’t consult your utility early in the process.

  • 💡 Tip: capitalize on construction and trenching. When you resurface a parking lot or have an open trench, consider adding additional conduit stubs and vaults to service future expansions to save money and time rather than trenching again. As seen at Electric Island in Portland, Oregon, permanent concrete vaults with removable covers can also be used to defray future site disturbances while allowing access to charger power lines and conduit for repair, maintenance and future expansion. Discuss with your utility whether you can upsize some electrical equipment to support future development, such as transformers, pads, panels or handholes. ESB deployment also offers an opportunity to discuss what you and your utility can do to coordinate with other local projects and help decrease the cost of electricity and increase renewable generation on your local grid.
  • 💡 Tip: consider portable charging equipment. Some equipment manufacturers now offer charging equipment with extendable reach or that can be moved from one location to another. For situations where trenching for new electric service might be difficult, expensive or otherwise inadvisable, these chargers offer a workable and maneuverable solution. Keep this option in mind as it might allow for a creative solution to a complex problem. These systems can be customizable and sized to meet charging needs.

Challenge: You are concerned about reliability for charging your fleet

Having a new batch of ESBs can come with the additional concern of ensuring dependable service to power them. If you are in an area where electric reliability can be a concern, you may want to take extra steps to safeguard your access to energy. Situations might also arise in which you would want to utilize your ESBs beyond their normally scheduled routes, such as field trips or sporting events. This change of schedule might necessitate finding compatible chargers outside of the normal bus operating ranges.

  • 💡 Tip: explore a microgrid. A microgrid can be temporarily disconnected, or islanded, from the electric grid, and can provide its own power through solar panels or other means of onsite generation. For ESBs, microgrids can increase reliability if your depot is in an area that may experience power disruptions or is in a vulnerable location prone to natural disasters. Your microgrid may also save you money by allowing you to better manage your power drawn from the electric grid. Adding solar panels or microgrid controls is an additional investment on top of your other infrastructure but may be worth considering as part of a larger electrification or resilience strategy. These investments can help support community efforts for local renewable energy or act as resources in emergency management situations. Learn how Salt Lake City School District in Utah was able to incorporate a solar project with their ESB deployment.
  • 💡 Tip: charge beyond the depot. Knowing the locations of other chargers that work with your ESB in-route — such as through school districts, transit agencies or other publicly-available sources — can help increase the number of vehicle miles traveled where your new ESBs can fully replace diesel-burning school buses. Be sure that your own charging stations are open and accessible as well!

Additional resources:

Robert Stafford
Lidia Henderson