Salem’s first electric school bus is on the road

Bus driver Chris Mitzel demonstrates the controls on the Salem-Keizer School District’s first electric school bus at the district bus lot on Feb. 21, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Bus #427 has a control panel nearly identical to its neighbors in the Salem-Keizer School District’s transportation lot on Hawthorne Avenue.

Only a small change on the fuel gauge betrays the bus’ special status. Instead of a gas pump icon near the “empty” side of the dial, the digital display shows a small electric charging tower.

The 21-seater vehicle is the first electric school bus in the district’s fleet. The roughly 300 buses that transport tens of thousands of local students to classes, sporting events and other activities run on diesel or gasoline. Collectively, they require about 3,000 gallons of fuel daily and cover close to 20,000 miles.

The electric bus arrived at the district last summer and, after some initial training, was opened to drivers to try out on shorter routes. As a shorter bus, it’s too small for most regular school routes, but can drive for special programs like preschool, special education or transporting students without permanent housing.

“It’s so much better not breathing exhaust,” said bus driver Chris Mitzel, who’s been with the district for 14 years. He’s among the drivers who’ve tested out the bus on their regular route.

Mitzel said his students generally haven’t noticed they’re riding a different bus when they get on board. But he appreciates that he’s not polluting school pick-up and drop-off areas with exhaust fumes as kids are waiting around, he said.

TJ Crockett, transportation director for the Salem-Keizer School District, plugs in the district’s fist electric bus at the transportation lot on Hawthorne Avenue on Feb. 21, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Bus #427 arrived at the district last summer thanks to a grant from Portland General Electric to buy the bus and its charging station on the west side of the bus lot. The total cost was about $230,000, said John Farmer, spokesman for the utility.

Salem-Keizer was one of five districts selected in the utility’s first round of its Electric School Bus Program in 2020.

A second application from Salem-Keizer for a full-size electric bus was approved last fall, and transportation director TJ Crockett said he expects the vehicle to be delivered in about a year.

Farmer said PGE will spend $250,000 on that bus. The utility only pays the cost of an electric bus over what a conventional bus would cost, he said. Funds come from the state Department of Environmental Quality’s clean fuels program.

The Salem Area Mass Transit District, Cherriots, also has electric buses arriving soon that were covered by a federal grant. Ten buses are in the works, with delivery expected in October 2022. Those buses will be deployed on Route 11, which serves Lancaster Drive, in the spring of 2023, Cherriots spokeswoman Patricia Feeney said.

School district workers are still learning about the electric bus’s maintenance needs and gathering performance data, Crockett said. It’s early, but he said so far the bus hasn’t required as much routine maintenance as the rest of the fleet.

“We don’t have oil changes to do. Power steering’s still there, but there’s not as much fluid on the vehicle,” he said.

Other districts with the same model of electric bus have reported less wear and tear on the brakes because of the bus’s regenerative braking, which stops the vehicle quickly and absorbs excess energy to recharge the battery, Crockett said.

It’s made by school bus manufacturer Blue Bird on a Ford chassis – the same one used on an F-450 truck, Crockett said.

So far, the bus is traveling about 80 miles per day on its charge, he said, a figure that should improve when the weather warms and the bus’s heaters don’t need to run as high.

For now, bus #427 is more an experiment than a significant part of the district’s fleet. Electric buses remain prohibitively expensive upfront, Crockett said – about $350,000 to $400,000 for a new bus, compared with $150,000 to $175,000 for the same model running on diesel.

“The price needs to come down or we need a bit more help with grants,” he said.

But he said it’s important to diversify the bus fleet and do what the district can to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

A new district transportation lot on Gaffin Road Southeast is expected to open later this year, and Crockett said it will have three electric vehicle chargers so the program can expand.

The operating costs of an electric bus are also lower, Crockett said – about three-quarters the cost per mile of diesel.

The bus’s charger is networked and can schedule the bus to charge during off-peak night hours, when electricity rates are lowest, Farmer said.

Crockett said electric school buses will become easier to use as commercial infrastructure to support them becomes more widely available. Few electric vehicle charging stations in Salem have space to accommodate even a small school bus, he said, limiting drivers to routes that can be driven on a single charge.

Next fall, he said the bus will be assigned to a regular district bus route.

Bus #427, the first electric school bus in the Salem-Keizer School District, is plugged in at the transportation lot on Hawthorne Avenue on Feb. 21, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

This article was updated with more current numbers on the size of the district’s bus fleet.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.