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District 150 is set to receive 15 electric buses. How have they worked elsewhere?

A Lion Electric school bus outside the plant where the vehicles are manufactured in Joliet, Ill.
Lion Electric
A Lion Electric school bus outside the plant where the vehicles are manufactured in Joliet, Ill.

A nearly $6 million federal grant means Peoria Public Schools District 150 are set to purchase 15 new electric school buses. It’s another move in a nationwide effort — backed by grant opportunities, rebates and tax deductions — to encourage adoption of electric vehicles.

But how effective are electric buses? What challenges are there to implementing electric vehicles and what benefits do they provide?

Tim Farquer is the superintendent of Williamsfield Schools. The district of just 300 students received a substantial grant from the U.S. Department of Energy last year. Since last November, Farquer says eight electric buses complete routes across the rural district every single day.

“They’ve been extremely reliable,” said Farquer. “We’ve had, I believe, five events that have disrupted routes. And we’ve probably ran 150 routes so far. You know, so far, so over a 99% success rate. Which we feel pretty good about.”

Farquer says some of the five “events” were drivers still getting used to the new technology. Two disruptions were caused by crash sensors accidentally tripped on bumpy gravel roads.

“So our fleet manager had to go reset the sensor in order for the bus to repower and go back to run its route,” Farquer said. “So two of the five events have been that one bus and that one crash sensor. That’s pretty much, I guess, quote unquote, the worst thing that’s happened to us so far.”

Farquer says the experience of implementing the buses has been “overall positive.” They have plenty of time to charge back on school grounds and sufficient power to complete their routes. Long term, he’s looking forward to implementing a further “microgrid” proposal that will allow the school to use the buses like an extra battery during peak energy consumption.

Farquer is also a proponent of the health benefits of electric vehicles, an interest he shares with organizations like the American Lung Association.

“Transportation sources are a leading source of air pollution,” said Kristina Hamilton, Illinois Advocacy Director for the American Lung Association. “That’s particle pollution and ozone. And that is very harmful to individuals in general, but especially to children, older adults, people who are pregnant and individuals with lung disease and other chronic conditions.”

Hamilton references a report recently released by the ALA. Assuming a model with entirely zero emission cars by 2035, zero emission medium and heavy duty vehicles by 2040, and a clean non-combustion grid by 2035, the ALA estimates 2.79 million avoided asthma attacks, millions of avoided respiratory symptoms, hundreds of thousands less cases of acute bronchitis and more than 500 infant mortality cases avoided by 2050.

These numbers are based on a model that presupposes major changes in the auto industry and widespread adoption of electric vehicles. But, Hamilton says they’re a good demonstration of the potential benefits of electric buses in particular.

“Children over-exposed to diesel exhaust, which can come from school buses, have decreased lung growth, acute lower respiratory infections and higher rates of asthma,” she said. “So, certainly, transitioning school buses to electric school buses will have a tremendous impact on children’s health. Because children use the buses so often. These buses idle near places where children gather.”

The Peoria district's electric buses are expected to be used in the 61603 and 61605 area codes. Those areas were identified as "Environmental Justice" communities in the Peoria City/County Joint Commission on Racial Justice and Equity's 2023 report. They scored at or near the national 90th percentile in categories like Diesel Particulate Matter and Air Toxins Cancer Risk.

In addition to potential long-term benefits, there can be some challenges to implementing electric bus use. CityLink General Manager Doug Roelfs knows first hand. The 53 bus fleet of the Peoria public transit company includes three electric models.

“I have one on the road, the other two are sitting,” said Roelfs. “One because of charger issues. The other one I think there was a component issue and the company that we bought our three battery electric buses from just went through bankruptcy.”

The manufacturer Proterra filed for bankruptcy last year and a search of other news articles finds other municipalities struggling with electric bus models from the manufacturer. It’s unclear where the buses for District 150 will be manufactured at this point in the project. The Williamsfield buses were manufactured by Lion Electric in Joliet.

Roelfs says other concerns about electric vehicles, like their performance in cold weather, have actually not been an issue.

“That was one kind of benchmark, to see how they handle the cold weather here,” he said. “And they perform pretty well. But, yeah, it’s kind of spotty when all of a sudden something will go wrong. A lot of their diagnostics are all computer based and one little glitch and, you know, you need a computer technician down here just to diagnose it and figure out what’s going on.”

However, Roelfs acknowledges that a public transit use for electric buses, where they’re continuously running routes all day multiple days in a row, is very different from school bus use.

“From what I can tell, the school bus model is probably the best model for battery electric buses,” he said. “Because they’re out for, you know, a two or three hour period. You can charge them for three or four hours or longer, then they’re back out for two or three hours.”

Charging infrastructure isn’t expected to be a problem at District 150, the project proposal from energy solutions company Veregy includes more than $4 million in infrastructure to support the electric vehicles.

It remains to be seen how much the district ultimately benefits, as the board continues to iron out the finer details. Officials previously told WCBU the buses would be in use by early next year.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.