Two districts in The County are considering purchasing electric school buses, like the one pictured here in Beverly, Massachusetts in 2021. Credit: Michael Casey / AP

All around the United States, people are switching to electric vehicles from traditional gas or diesel. Even schools are beginning to use electric buses to transport students in their districts, but how feasible is this idea for Aroostook County?

Mount Desert Island High School is the only Maine school to have an electric bus, but other districts, including Bangor and Brewer, have begun conversations about acquiring them. While electric buses have many environmental and other advantages, their shortfalls may prevent schools in rural places like Aroostook County from making the switch — although some of those districts are considering the idea.

“We do not have any immediate plans to purchase an electric bus, but would be open to the possibility in the future,” said SAD 1 (Presque Isle) Superintendent Ben Greenlaw. “I am most concerned about the large number of miles our buses travel each day, and I am worried that our district doesn’t yet have the infrastructure to support regular charging and maintenance on these types of vehicles.”

SAD 20 (Fort Fairfield) and RSU 39 (Caribou) Superintendent Tim Doak said he is open to using an electric bus for either district. While he has concerns over how the bus would perform, Doak said he is willing to explore the project for both districts.

“The future is batteries, as batteries are now stronger than ever before with longer life expectancy,” Doak said.

The County’s climate, which often includes temperatures well below zero degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and its hilly terrain are two of Doak’s greatest concerns about using electric buses. But he said he would be willing to test them in both of the districts he serves.

The Caribou and Fort Fairfield school districts would seek grant money or other program incentives to fund the new buses.

While electric buses are more eco-friendly, they do not have the ability to go the same distance between charges as gas or diesel buses do between refills, said Marc Hopkins, sales manager at W.C. Cressey and Son, a school bus dealer.

The average gas-powered bus can go approximately 270 miles while a diesel bus can go roughly 510. But an electric bus is only good for 130-150 miles per full charge, he said.

Fort Fairfield’s four buses travel roughly 365 miles each day, 64,000 miles each year, which means approximately 16,000 miles per bus, according to SAD 20 Supervisor of Maintenance and Transportation Bradley Laster.

The distance traveled between charges shouldn’t be a problem for most schools during the average academic day, but could be an issue when students go on field trips or to other schools for sports because they would push the vehicle beyond its battery range.

“It would not be my first choice for a sports trip, or a trip, period,” Hopkins said. “You need to be aware of replenishing the charge once you have gotten to your destination. If you can’t accomplish that, then perhaps the more conventional power sources should be used for those longer trips.”

Cold temperatures shouldn’t be a major concern either, Hopkins said. Tok, Alaska, has an electric school bus that works well in winter, he said. The total mileage per charge is slightly decreased from 138 to 115 miles because the bus has extra heaters in the cabin.

Then comes the cost. The price can vary depending on the exact equipment that is installed on the vehicle. Gas buses cost a little more $100,000. Electric buses cost in the range of $340,000-$350,000, although there are federal grants that can help schools offset a majority of the expense. 

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is setting up  grant opportunities starting in late April for its clean bus program. Program funding will be available for the next five years, with the goal of providing rebates on zero-emission vehicles.

The school districts also would need charging stations to keep the vehicles going.There are two types of vehicle chargers, direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC).

AC chargers are more economical, costing between $8,000 and $11,000 to install, not including the associated site work. AC chargers typically charge more slowly, taking approximately seven or eight hours to fully charge a nearly dead battery, according to Hopkins.  

DC chargers can cost between $35,000 and $40,000. DC charging is much faster, taking about three and a half hours.

The charging system a district chooses will depend on how the bus will be used, Hopkins said.

“If they [a school district] was only going to use it for a morning and afternoon run with nothing in the middle, I’d say to go for the more economical charging, because you won’t get to the point of being worried about running out of charge,” Hopkins said. “For more rigorous use throughout the day, I would recommend DC charging.”

Taking the bus off site to one of the growing number of charging stations in Aroostook County would also pose some complications. Having the vehicle at the school bus depot would mean the vehicle is accounted for and could be left to charge without supervision.

Taking the vehicle off site would require the school to pay personnel to take it for a charge, monitor it until it was done and then return it to the bus depot. Some bus drivers serve other functions in the district, such as janitorial services, and having to go off site would interfere with that activity.

There are more than 1,800 electric school buses in the United States that have been distributed to 354 school districts or fleet operators in 36 states, including the one in Maine, according to the World Resources Institute.

David DiMinno

David grew up in New York, and moved to Maine to study political science at the University of Maine. In his spare time, he loves hiking, playing tennis and skiing.