The advocacy group 'Mothers Out Front Fairfax County' did not expect its Clean Buses for Kids campaign to see such swift progress.
Leaders of the local environmental advocacy group were aware that Virginia had some kind of electric school bus initiative in the works when they called for Fairfax County Public Schools to convert its diesel bus fleet on Aug. 20.
However, they did not anticipate the scope of Dominion Energy’s plan to deploy electric school buses throughout Virginia, which will be the largest such initiative in the U.S.
Joined by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Herndon headquarters, Dominion announced on Aug. 29 that it will support the deployment of 50 electric school buses within its service territory by the end of 2020 with the goal of replacing all diesel school buses in the state by 2030.
Mothers Out Front Fairfax co-founders Julie Kimmel and Bobby Monacella were in the audience for the announcement and, afterwards, seemed slightly dazed by what they heard.
“MOF Fairfax has set a goal of transitioning Fairfax County Public Schools to all electric school buses as soon as possible, so Dominion’s announcement today is great news,” Mothers Out Front Fairfax said in a statement released that afternoon. “This is an important, positive step toward giving our kids healthy air to breathe and a livable future in the face of climate change.”
A regulated public utility, Dominion Energy supplies electricity or natural gas to roughly 7.5 million customers in 18 states, making it one of the largest energy producers and transporters in the country.
Dominion Energy Virginia views its electric school bus program as part of a broad effort to reduce the company’s carbon footprint and transition to renewable energy sources that do not produce the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
According to Dominion Energy chairman, president, and CEO Thomas Farrell, Dominion has cut down its carbon emissions production by 52 percent over the past 15 years, and the company now generates 2,600 megawatts of solar energy in 10 different states, enough to power 650,000 homes when fully operational.
With an offshore wind project in the works along the Virginia coast in partnership with the Danish company Ørsted Energy, Dominion made a commitment to Northam last year that it will have 3,000 megawatts of solar and wind generation in operation or under development by 2022. That would be enough energy to power 750,000 homes.
Farrell says the company’s goal is to decrease its carbon emissions by 80 to 100 percent by 2050, depending on the advancement of technology.
Transitioning away from gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles will be critical to staving off the worst impacts of climate change, which the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says would become unavoidable if the planet’s temperature increases by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Published in October, the U.N. report determined that global carbon emissions must drop by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to limit Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., accounting for roughly 29 percent of the 6,457 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions produced in 2017.
According to the World Health Organization, diesel transport is one of the world’s major sources of black carbon, a pollutant that ranks as the second highest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.
Virginia has 17,000 school buses, and with 1,625 buses of its own, all of which run on diesel except for one plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle, Fairfax County Public Schools is responsible for the second largest school bus fleet in the U.S.
Replacing a diesel bus with an electric bus prevents 54,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere annually and reduces maintenance and fuel costs by more than 60 percent a year, according to Dominion.
Electric buses are more expensive to buy than diesel ones, but lower maintenance costs and better fuel efficiency means electric buses are more affordable long-term.
“Replacing diesel buses with electric buses would be good for children and of course the drivers,” Farrell said. “It would also benefit local school systems, because electric vehicles have lower operating and maintenance costs. That means school systems would have more money to spend on things like maintenance…and higher teacher pay, rather than fixing broken buses.”
After hosting a telephone town hall to share information on its electric school bus program with Virginia school districts on Wednesday, Dominion opened up applications for interested school districts and issued a request for proposals this week asking bus manufacturers to submit bids.
Dominion will cover the difference in cost of purchasing an electric bus compared to a diesel one as well as charging station infrastructure expenses, saving local governments as much as $700 per bus, according to Farrell.
The utility company will require in its RFP that all buses included in the program have seatbelts and utilize vehicle-to-grid technology that allows energy stored in electric vehicles to return to the power grid when they are not in use.
After an initial deployment of 50 electric buses to selected jurisdictions in 2020, the program’s second phase will introduce 1,000 more buses by 2025 with the goal of making 50 percent of all diesel bus replacements electric before replacing all diesel buses with electric ones by 2030.
School buses generally have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, according to FCPS Department of Facilities and Transportation Services assistant superintendent Jeffrey Platenberg, who told the Fairfax County Times that the district will “be in the forefront” of the application process to compete for the initially limited number of available buses.
Platenberg says the Dominion Energy Electric School Bus Program is “huge” as an indicator of how widespread support for electric vehicles is with the involvement of a major utility and bus manufacturers along with local school districts and the state government.
“You have the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors interested in these initiatives, sustainable initiatives in transportation,” Platenberg said. “Our kids expect it. Our communities expect it. I’m just really excited that this day is here.”
Northam announced on June 24 that the Commonwealth will allocate more than $12 million to electric transit buses in three localities, including Alexandria’s DASH public bus system.
The fund includes $9 million from the $93.6 million Virginia received last year from its settlement with Volkswagen, which was sued by the EPA and Federal Trade Commission in June 2016 for disabling emission controls in violation of the Clean Air Act.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced on Apr. 22 that it will develop an electric bus strategy to pilot and evaluate the use of electric buses in its fleet as part of the regional transit system’s first-ever Energy Action Plan.
The excitement around Dominion’s initiative was palpable on Aug. 29 after officials dispersed to look at a pair of electric school buses brought in for a demonstration by the automotive and energy storage company Proterra and the bus manufacturer Blue Bird.
“I’m just thrilled,” Fairfax County School Board chair and Mount Vernon District representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said. “Look at the energy out here. Look at how many people are here, excited about the concept of going to a more sustainable and healthier approach for transit for our students.”
For Mothers Out Front Fairfax, the next step in its campaign to bring electric school buses to Fairfax County is to make sure that Dominion’s grand proposal becomes a reality and that FCPS is included.
“That’s our job now, to make sure that Dominion sticks to this plan and starts to replace the fleet in Fairfax County ASAP,” Kimmel said.