Fairfax County Public Schools will receive its first electric school buses by the end of the year after successfully bidding to be part of Dominion Energy’s ambitious, statewide electric school bus program.
The power company announced on Jan. 16 that it will support 50 electric buses distributed across 16 localities in the first phase of its initiative, which aims to replace all of the diesel school buses in Virginia with electric vehicles by 2030.
Fairfax County will receive funding assistance from Dominion to purchase eight electric buses for its existing fleet of 1,625 vehicles, which are currently all diesel-fueled except for one plug-in, hybrid-electric bus.
FCPS’s school bus fleet is the largest of any school division in the state and the second largest in the U.S.
“As the largest school division in Virginia, we feel it is critical for us to set an example for our students and our community that we are exploring and implementing as many solutions as possible to combat climate change,” Fairfax County School Board Chair Karen Corbett Sanders, who represents Mount Vernon District on the board, said.
Fairfax County is one of four Northern Virginia districts chosen by Dominion for its electric bus program. It is joined by Arlington and Prince William counties as well as the City of Alexandria.
The other school divisions included in the initiative’s first phase are Charles City, Chesapeake, Chesterfield, Hampton, Louisa, Middlesex, Norfolk, Pittsylvania, Powhatan, Richmond City, Virginia Beach, and Waynesboro.
School districts applied for funding from Dominion to acquire electric school buses last fall after the company unveiled its plans to help transition Virginia away from diesel buses on Aug. 29 at the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Herndon headquarters, where Dominion officials were joined by Gov. Ralph Northam.
According to Dominion spokesperson Peggy Fox, the participants were selected in a competitive process based on the availability of parking in proximity to the infrastructure needed to support vehicle-to-grid technology, which lets buses store electricity to be redistributed during periods of high demand.
In addition to covering the difference in cost between electric and diesel buses, Dominion will subsidize the cost of charging stations for the localities chosen for the first phase of its program.
“We are excited to move forward with our commitment to bringing the benefits of electric school buses to the customers and communities we serve,” Dominion Energy chairman, president and CEO Thomas F. Farrell II said. “This is an innovative, sustainable solution that will help the environment, protect children’s health, make the electric grid stronger, and free up money for our schools.”
Without Dominion’s program to assist with funding, acquiring electric school buses would have been a challenge because of their limited availability and a price tag that would be prohibitive for many school divisions, FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand says.
Dominion Energy selected Thomas Built Buses in December as the vendor to supply 50 seatbelt-equipped electric buses for the program’s first phase.
Thomas Built Buses distinguished itself from five other possible vendors that participated in a competitive bidding process primarily due to the lifetime warranty on its bus battery, which Fox says is the most comprehensive warranty offered for an electric school bus battery and will cover the buses' estimated 15-year lifespan.
Dominion’s contract with Thomas Built Buses requires the manufacturer to have 25 buses on the road in August with all 50 buses scheduled to be deployed by the end of the year.
While electric buses are more expensive to buy than diesel ones, they cut maintenance and fuel costs by more than 60 percent a year, making them more affordable in the long term, according to Dominion.
The first phase of Dominion’s electric school bus program will be covered by the company’s existing base rate, meaning it will not affect prices paid by customers. If the Virginia General Assembly approves an expansion of the program, average customers could see a price increase of up to $1.40 per month.
For the project’s second phase, Dominion hopes to introduce at least 1,000 additional electric school buses and make 50 percent of all diesel bus replacements in the company’s footprint electric by 2025 with the ultimate goal of making all replacements electric by 2030.
Introduced by State Sen. L. Louise Lucas, a bill authorizing Dominion to implement the next phases of its program is currently under consideration by the General Assembly, which convened for its 2020 session on Jan. 8.
Fairfax County Public Schools’ inclusion in Dominion’s electric school bus program comes as local government and school officials have intensified their efforts to reduce the county’s carbon footprint and make the county more environmentally friendly.
The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors funded a new office of environment and energy last May and worked with the school board to create a joint environmental task force that held its first meeting on Sept. 3.
FCPS has acknowledged the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since the school board adopted an environmental stewardship policy in 2008, committing the school system to taking “innovative and cost-effective steps to help our county achieve climate stabilization.”
FCPS reduced its carbon emissions from natural gas, fuel oil, and electricity consumption by 35 percent between 2008 and 2018 despite adding 2.2 million square feet of occupied space in that time, according to the district.
The school board also passed a resolution on Oct. 11, 2018 calling on the General Assembly and Congress to act on climate change and remove barriers to replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy technology.
“Adding electric school buses in our fleet is consistent with the environmental focus of Fairfax County and the school division,” Brabrand said. “…This exciting new Dominion Energy initiative is moving us forward and is making electric school buses a reality.”
After years of urging county officials to take more substantial action to address climate change, local environmental advocates expressed excitement about FCPS introducing electric buses to its fleet.
The Fairfax County chapter of Mothers Out Front, a national climate justice advocacy network, launched a Clean Buses for Kids campaign to bring electric school buses to FCPS last August, just days before Dominion announced its statewide initiative.
“We applaud any addition of clean buses to Virginia’s fleet, and we are very happy that FCPS was awarded part of the Dominion pilot,” Mothers Out Front Fairfax County said in a statement. “At the same time, we will continue to advocate for a complete and equitable transition of Virginia’s school bus fleet by 2030.”
Community activists have been instrumental in pushing Fairfax County to adopt more concrete measures to combat climate change, which scientists say is responsible for melting glaciers, disappearing biodiversity, and increasingly devastating natural disasters, like wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report in October 2018 that found global net carbon emissions must be reduced to 55 percent of 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Students led the charge to bring more solar energy to Fairfax County, eventually resulting in the largest solar power purchase agreement initiative undertaken by a local municipality in Virginia. The county announced on Dec. 10 that it was awarding contracts to install solar panels at 113 government, park, and school facilities.
FCPS students with the Sunrise Movement, a national youth-led climate justice advocacy group, organized a climate strike on Dec. 6 to urge their school district to implement policies that would help achieve a goal of net-zero carbon emissions. Solar panels and electric buses were among the students’ demands.
Mothers Out Front Fairfax County co-founder Bobby Monacella says the organization recently endorsed legislation introduced to the General Assembly by Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) that would create a block grant program to help school districts cover the cost difference between diesel and electric buses and pay for the necessary charging equipment.
Keam’s bill prioritizes communities with higher asthma rates and poor air quality, emphasizes using renewable energy to charge electric buses, and gives school districts a portion of any funds gained through the use of vehicle-to-grid technology.
Keam’s proposed block grant program would be run by the Virginia Department of Education, whereas Lucas’s bill to authorize the second phase of Dominion’s initiative focuses on electric school bus projects implemented by utilities.
Sunrise Movement Fairfax, Environment Virginia, 350 Fairfax, 350 Alexandria, Our Revolution Falls Church, and Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions are among the other local and state environmental advocacy groups that have joined Mothers Out Front in supporting Keam’s bill.
“Mothers Out Front appreciates every electric school bus that is added, because that means one less dirty, polluting bus and one step for cleaner air and less greenhouse emissions,” Mothers Out Front Fairfax County said. “…In the face of climate change, our kids’ future can’t wait.”