The Fuse

How the EPA Can Future-Proof Innovation for School Bus Electrification

April 19, 2023

By Panasonic NextLab Head of Strategy Courtney Ehrlichman 

At Panasonic Smart Mobility Office (SMO), our focus on the electric fleet market is centered on solutions that will drive inefficiencies out of the market and reduce emissions quickly. One fleet segment in particular is poised to take off in the next few years thanks to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act: electric school buses. If executed effectively, the Environmental Protection Agency’s $5 billion Clean School Bus (CSB) Program and $1 billion Clean Heavy Duty Vehicle Program will help electrify tens of thousands of the nation’s 480,000 school buses which carry over 26 million kids to and from their local school each week day. 

Key to the success and long-term impact of these programs is the charging infrastructure that is funded along with the buses themselves. Without requirements that these chargers are truly interoperable and future-proofed (like those funded by the Department of Transportation’s National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Program) the EPA risks rapid deployment of charging infrastructure that cannot scale with the fleets or innovate with the technologies that will be unlocked by this transformation.  

Interoperability means that any service provider can connect software to a networked charger, not just the company that manufactured the charger, and makes chargers capable of smart charge management. Smart charge management aligns the supply and demand of electricity to lower costs for users, which can protect school districts from costly demand charges that reduce or eliminate the total cost of ownership savings that accompany electrification. For example, in a 2015 electric school bus trial, without smart charge management three Massachusetts school districts found that energy costs were 63% higher than necessary due to unmanaged charging. This cost prohibitive barrier must be removed in order to reduce total cost of ownership and clear the way for school districts to electrify their fleets.  

Electric School Buses: More Than Just a Ride to School 

The most obvious benefits of transitioning from diesel to electric school buses are reduced emissions and a quieter, cleaner ride for students that protects their health. When deployed strategically with the use of smart charge management, electric school buses can provide so much more for school districts and communities, potentially serving as energy storage systems when not in use. However, vehicle-to-grid functionality is required to unlock this added benefit.   

Deploying charging infrastructure that is fully interoperable and capable of smart charge management is critical to harnessing the V2G capabilities of electric school buses. If all school buses in the United States were electrified with V2G capable vehicles, this would create 61.5 GWh of stored energy capacity and 6.28 gigawatts of instantaneous power, which is equivalent to more than 1.2 million residential solar roof installations or sixteen coal power generators 

The typical school bus operates two routes per school day – one in the morning and again in the afternoon – for a total of just over 10 hours of use per day. Because school buses spend much more of their time not in use compared to other medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, there is more downtime for charging during periods where electricity is cheaper, such as during the school day, overnight, and months at a time over the summer break.   

During this downtime, electric school buses essentially become large mobile energy storage systems, which can in turn be drawn upon to act as part of a microgrid that can serve the school using V2G functionality during emergencies or times of increased strain on the grid. Furthermore, these bus batteries can store electricity harnessed by solar and other renewable sources during peak summer hours when grid supply can often exceed demand and then release the stored energy to the grid for peak evening hours, better aligning variable generation and utilization loads that come from renewable sources and the increased adoption of EVs. 

V2G also allows school districts to engage in peak shaving, where spikes in demand for electricity are smoothed out using stored energy and renewables, as well as energy arbitrage, where stored energy is sold back into the power grid for a profit, further reducing the total cost of owning the electric buses. Innovation in this space is already underway. For example, Cajon Valley Unified School District has partnered with San Diego Gas and Electric to trial this technology in California.  

How Panasonic is Turning School Buses into Virtual Power Plants 

In practice, these capabilities allow us to turn a depot full of parked school buses into a virtual power plant (VPP) resource, a collection of small-scale energy resources that, aggregated together and coordinated with utility grid operations, provide the same level of reliability and economic value to the grid as a standard power plant. 

This coordinated smart charge management and grid integration is at the heart of our Panasonic eFleet Solutions of America (PEFSA) software platform which ties together each piece of a growingly complex charging system. As school districts convert more and more of their fleet to electric school buses from multiple manufacturers and charging providers, it is critical that all of these systems can communicate seamlessly to unlock this potential.  

How the EPA Can Future-Proof Clean School Bus Investments in Charging Infrastructure 

The historic investments made in the IIJA and IRA laws will truly scale the market for the rapidly growing electric school bus industry. The requirements tied to these funds are the EPA’s most effective policy lever for ensuring optimal outcomes. Together, these two bills provide upwards of $8 billion to purchase electric school buses and associated charging. To understand the scale of this investment, it is three orders of magnitude larger than the $10M Federal investment in electric school buses made just three years ago in 2020. The first, nearly $1 billion round of investment will fund the purchase of nearly 2,500 electric school buses, with four more years of rebates and grants on the way.  

Rapid electrification will require higher levels of coordination between school districts and their utilities, which is why it is encouraging to see the EPA’s recent pledge with utilities to commit to greater coordination with school districts. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the electric school bus transition creates new opportunities for school districts to increase energy resilience, avoid costly demand charges, and have the capability to sell energy back to the grid using V2G. These benefits are unlocked by interoperable EV charging infrastructure compliant with the Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP) 2.0.1 standard.   

With this significant investment, the EPA must take action now to unlock long-term additional benefits for school districts by requiring charging interoperability standards that mirror those of the U.S. DOT Federal Highway Administration’s NEVI Program. Equipped with the OCPP 2.0.1 standard, school bus chargers can be connected to the grid to allow buses to serve as mobile energy storage systems using V2G capabilities. 

With 480,000 school buses across the country, the bulk of school bus electrification is yet to come and a significant amount of CSB Program funding is on the way. Now is the time for the EPA to ensure that this investment not only reduces emissions, but also protects school districts from costly demand charges while enhancing grid resiliency by unlocking the door for V2G capabilities. To do so, the EPA must require that the charging infrastructure accompanying these new vehicles is interoperable using the full certificate OCPP 2.0.1 standard and by explicitly listing smart charge management software as an eligible, and recommended, use of funding.   

These key policies, if implemented today, will prepare the nation’s growing fleet of electric school buses to meet the needs and opportunities of a future where the yellow school bus can be truly magical.