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Electric school bus to debut in Reedley

Courtesy of Kings Canyon Unified School District
John Clements stands in front of the new E-Trans all-electric school bus that is owned by the Kings Canyon Unified School District in Reedley. (photo courtesy of Kings Canyon Unified)

For years, going to school in the Valley has sounded something like this. [sounds of a loud diesel school bus] But later this month one valley school district will start to replace the clatter of diesel engines and smell of exhaust with the quiet hum of electric power, with what's being called the first all-electric school bus in the nation.

“We’re really proud of the fact that this first all electric school bus is being demonstrated right here in our backyard in Reedley,” said Samir Sheikh, Director of Strategies and Incentives for the Valley Air District. The Air District helped the Kings Canyon Unified School District pay for about two thirds of the cost of $230,000 of the bus.

On the outside the bus, which is currently on a tour of tradeshows and media events, looks a lot like any other bus, aside from the fluorescent green wheels. It's big, it's yellow, and seats 42 students. But to John Clements, it's something closer to a thrill ride.

“It’s kind of like going to Disneyland and never been on the Matterhorn before. You see it, but until you ride in it and you drive it, you go wow. It has an awe factor to it.”

Clements is the Director of Transportation for the district which covers around 600 square miles in Eastern Fresno County, from the Valley floor all the way to Kings Canyon National Park. Each year the district's nearly 70 diesel and natural gas busses travel over 1,000,000 miles, through some of the most polluted air in the nation. He hope this new bus will do its part in helping to change that.

“This first E-trans bus that we’re receiving will go on a route from Reedley to Orange Cove and back, morning and afternoon and will serve the needs of the Orange Cove community, with door to door service for some of our special needs children. It will be within the 80 mile capacity [of the bus].”

Clements says area residents are excited to be pioneers in clean transportation, and what this zero pollution bus means for the health of students and the community. “It means you can operate a school bus that puts out zero pollutants. There's no PM10's to worry about there's no NOx. It’s a remarkable thing for the San Joaquin Valley.”

While the idea of an all electric school bus may be new, the technology underneath has been in production since the 1930's. That's when chassis manufacturer Smith Electric began building all electric milk trucks to make morning deliveries in the UK.

Smith Electric’s US CEO Bryan Hansel says the quiet operations of the electric truck made it popular. “The Milk Float was used by the two largest dairy companies in the UK to deliver milk door to door. So when it was absolutely standard practice that you set your milk bottles on the back steps, this product was developed, it’s been in service for over 50 years, and Dairy Crest which is still our largest customer, has 1,500 of those on the road today.”

The company opened its US operation in Kansas City in 2009, where it makes electric delivery trucks for customers like Frito Lay and Staples. And beneath the school bus body, it's the same chassis and motor that powers the Kings Canyon bus, known as the Etrans.

One common problem with electric cars has been limited range. You can only drive so far before the battery is depleted, and a recharge isn't as quick as a fill up at the pump. But according to Hansel, the predictability and limited routes of school buses make them a perfect fit for electric power.

“We have a vehicle with a finite amount of energy, just like an airplane. You kind of need to know where you’re going before you leave so you can put the right amount of fuel on-board. That’s very critical in the application of a commercial EV [electric vehicle] and nothing defines that better than a school bus. They know every single day the exact route, so at 8:02 AM every morning they know exactly where they’re going to be at each corner. So that predictability really enables us to right-size the battery.”

Clements says the new electric bus will have other advantages as well, from reduced maintenance costs, to less reliance on rapidly rising diesel prices. “Currently diesel buses require extreme maintenance to get that lower emission achievement. We have these diesel particulate filters that have to be plugged in everyday to heat them up and clean them off. So our thought was, wow we can plug in an electric bus and get some “go” from that electricity.”

The school district recently announced plans to purchase two additional electric buses, thanks to support from the Air Resources Board. Those will be loaned out to other Valley districts to help spread interest in the new technology. Samir Sheikh says he can see the technology catching on, despite the cost, which is currently about twice as much as a conventional bus.

“If we’re able to find other school districts that are willing to demonstrate these types of vehicles, we could provide some additional funding for those types of projects.”

The E-Trans bus is expected to return from the show circuit and get its final CHP inspection later this month.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).