In March Bend La-Pine Schools' first electric school bus began running routes. The emission-free, $385,000, 16-ton Lion C school bus can fit up to 71 passengers and travels up to 155 miles on a single charge. The school district subsidized its purchase of the bus with a $157,500 grant from Pacific Power. The district is treating its first electric bus as a pilot on whether it can survive Bend's cold weather and steep terrain. Buses of all sorts generally perform well in snowy weather.
"Buses are fantastic in the snow. They weigh a bajillion pounds. They're heavy so they stay on the road. We also have automatic drop-down chains on all of our buses." said Tina Bandy, transportation assistant supervisor at BLPS.
Bandy said the district reached out to districts with below-freezing weather – several which had Lion C buses, able to avoid cold-weather disruptions to the battery with the help of an onboard diesel engine heater. It's not a hybrid, though, and the bus is powered solely through electricity. It's the only electric bus in the fleet and will likely stay that way until there's support for utility upgrades.
"We can only charge one bus, so we only have one bus. It would take a big upgrade, and there really aren't funds available. There's all these (public) funds available to purchase buses, and [the state] will give you a certain amount of dollars, depending on if you're in a high priority or low priority district. We would be a lower priority because we already have clean air buses here," Bandy said, referring to low-emission propane buses and newer, more efficient diesel buses.
The district said the benefits of the electric bus are cleaner air, safety and comfort from reduced noise and the lower cost of refueling. Powering an electric bus can cost up to 80% less than the cost of a diesel bus. It also has fewer moving parts, and the district estimates it could cut maintenance costs in half. Electric buses cost more than a typical diesel bus but are much cheaper than they were a couple years ago.
"When I first started looking at electric buses, they were around $600,000. The price has come way down. But still, $385,000 is a lot of money. Our regular school buses run us about $185,000. They've gone up. They used to be about $140 but this last purchasing round they're about $30,000 more and that's across all the brands," Bandy said.
BLPS' fleet, besides the one electric bus, is about 51% diesel, 48% propane and 1% gasoline. Of those, diesel emits the most greenhouse gas, followed by gasoline and propane. All the district's buses meet current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The district started acquiring propane buses to get a cleaner fuel source in the fleet and is planning on getting more now that their older propane buses are outdated.
"We want to keep our buses' average fleet age between 12 to 15 years old. We replace probably 10 a year. We just kind of stopped picking up the old ones. We're all caught up with the diesels, we're good on that. And now we're starting to swap out some of our older propane buses," Bandy said.
The district is currently hiring about 10-15 bus drivers, which is typical for the district. Some drivers have retired, and others are being brought on to fill new routes. Potential employees — or reporters (a video of that is available online ) — can try out driving a bus on May 18 and 25 before submitting an application. There's a big learning curve when learning to drive a bus, but Bandy said 90% of the job is managing students.
"It's rewarding work. If somebody has a desire to give back to the community or have positive impacts in the lives of students, then this is a great job for that. It's also great if you're independent, you don't have somebody looking over your shoulder all the time. There are summers off, that's always fun. You're not inside all day long. But the number one thing, and that's what we really hope when we're hiring somebody, is that they're here because they want to work with kids," Bandy said.