Hundreds of Virginia schoolchildren soon will be part of an experiment in cutting-edge transportation technology: electric school buses.
In the coming week, school districts in Northern Virginia, central Virginia and Hampton Roads may apply to partner with Dominion Energy in a project to put 50 electric school buses on the road by the end of 2020.
The program would be the largest fleet of its kind in the United States,the company said, and the first step in the utility's three-part plan to put 1,000 electric school buses on state roads by 2025.
Manufacturers soon will be allowed to begin bidding on the contract.
Mark Webb, senior vice president and chief innovation officer for Dominion, said the company is pursuing the project because of its environmental and health benefits. Replacing diesel buses with electric ones will reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality. The buses also will save school districts money in gas and maintenance costs, he said. An added benefit: the buses will have seat belts.
There are substantial benefits for Dominion, too. The bus batteries will serve as a resource for the power grid; 1,000 buses will produce enough energy to power about 10,000 homes for five hours, according to Dominion.
"Most school buses are kept in a centralized location, so from a grid support standpoint we can have a concentrated amount of battery storage in a specific location," Webb said. "You know it will be there when you need it - for planning, that's super-useful."
He added, "Not only does [the project] improve our numbers, but it solves other problems as well - it has significant benefit to the rest of society. We look for things that are win-win-wins, and this is one."
Experts said Dominion's plan is part of a larger pivot toward electric school buses. Over the past half-decade, school districts around the country have begun to experiment with electric transportation, said Matt Casale, transportation campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group - though Dominion's project is by far the largest to date.
Casale said there has been serious interest in electric school buses for a while, but that battery technology only recently advanced to the point "where we can really talk about, how do we switch all our buses over to electricity?"
Electric bus programs are underway in a few states - Massachusetts, California and Minnesota - and Dominion's work in Virginia probably will inspire more, he said.
"I think Dominion is going to be the first domino, and a lot of utility companies are going to follow," Casale said. "I think we're going to see a very beneficial transition to electric school buses after this."
Just like electric cars, electric school buses come equipped with a battery that must be charged at a station. The buses have a range of about 100 to 135 miles per charge, Webb said. And they usually can handle all but the hilliest of terrains, Casale said.
Environmental organizations have long touted the vehicles' money-saving and environmental benefits. A 2018 report by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund found that switching U.S. school buses from diesel to electric would cut emissions by 5.3 million tons - equivalent to yanking about a million cars off the road. Each electric bus would also save schools about $2,000 a year in fuel costs and $4,400 in maintenance, according to the report.
Nonetheless, schools often balk at the price tag of making the switch, Casale said. Electric buses cost about $200,000 more than their diesel counterparts, according to Webb.
That's where Dominion is stepping in. The utility will pay the cost difference for the new buses as well as pay for and install the charging stations and other necessary infrastructure.
The first 50 buses will cost Dominion about $13.5 million, according to Webb, which the company is funding by tapping into existing assets and spreading the cost over the next several years. The cost will not be passed on to Dominion Energy customers, the utility said.
Dominion began exploring the idea of electric school buses a little more than a year ago, Webb said, inspired partly by initiatives in other states. The company kicked things into high gear over past few months, consulting with renewable-energy experts, manufacturers, local government and school districts.
The company recently announced its plan during a news conference with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, who said that the electric buses represent "innovative" thinking.
"Virginia is leading the way in promoting electric vehicle technology and improving our environment," Northam said in a statement. "We look forward to working with Dominion as they bring electric school buses to communities in all corners of our Commonwealth."
As its next steps, Dominion will begin soliciting applications from schools and electric bus manufacturers who want to participate in the project. Schools may apply by submitting an online form - which asks for the size and state of their bus fleets, in addition to an essay detailing their reasons for wanting to participate.
Dominion recently held a teleconference with about 200 people representing school districts across the state, during which company officials explained details of the program and answered educators' questions.
"We're very excited about this opportunity and we'll be submitting an application," said Al Ciarochi, the associate superintendent for support services for Prince William County Public Schools.
Dominion's ultimate goal is that 100 percent of replacement buses purchased by Virginia schools in its service territory are electric by 2030.
There are 17,000 school buses in Virginia, but it's unclear how many are in Dominion's service area. Schools replace about 1,000 buses a year, "so it would take time to replace them all, but we'd get there eventually," Webb said.
For now, though, the company is focused on rolling out the first 50. In preparation, Dominion recently offered a group of students in Petersburg, Va., a test ride.
"The inside of the bus is so much quieter, so the kids all commented on how nice and quiet it was - they could actually hear their friends," Webb said. "So that was a side benefit we never even thought of."