MCPS Electric Bus Fleet Becomes Largest in the Country

by Payton Seppala ‘23

There’s been a lot of talk about making climate friendly changes in MCPS, but until recently, not much action. This all changes with MCPS’s partnership with Highland Electric Fleets to deliver 326 brand-new electric school buses by 2025. A ribbon-cutting ceremony for what was the largest deployment of electric school buses in the country happened late October at Walter Johnson High School, when MCPS received its delivery of 61 brand new Thomas Built buses, bringing its total to 86. The new buses are not only expected to cut emissions, but also cut costs and toxic chemicals that are more likely to be present in diesel school buses. 

This development pushes MCPS closer to reaching its goal of cutting 80 percent of its emissions by 2027, and 100 percent of its emissions by 2035. Currently, county owned diesel buses burn around 17,000 gallons of diesel fuel on a typical school day, and their irregular driving patterns involving stopping and idling for long periods of time mean they are very inefficient. With an electric school bus, energy is only used when it is immediately required, meaning that it is much more efficient at its job. In addition to being harmful for the environment, fumes generated by the diesel buses are also harmful to students inside the buses, as Maryland House Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo noted, “Toxic pollutants can be as much as 2.5 times more prevalent inside a typical diesel school bus than inside an electric school bus.” 

The four-year contract costs MCPS around $1.3 million in upfront costs for all 326 buses, which is far less than would be expected, thanks to their partnership with Highland Electric who invests in the upfront costs of the buses themselves, planning to “recoup that investment over time through decreasing vehicle prices, less expensive fuel and maintenance savings” as stated in an MCPS news bulletin earlier this year. Indeed, owning an electric school bus is much less expensive than owning a traditional diesel-powered one. Take fuel savings for example. Superintendent Monifa B. McKnight says that once all 326 buses are up and running, she expects to be saving upwards of 6,500 gallons of diesel per day and will be immediately saving 50 percent of costs. Electric buses also contain far less moving parts than diesel buses, so maintenance costs are expected to be cut by more than 30 percent, according to Highland.

Charging infrastructure was also built at three more of MCPS’s five transportation depots, with one of the depots already having received charging stations in 2021. Each of the new buses will be equipped with V2G (Vehicle to Grid) technology, which allows the buses to move electricity from their own batteries to the main grid during times of peak demand. This ensures that the grid remains stable and reliable even with the additional demands placed on it. This technology also allows the buses to act like portable generators, where they can deliver electricity to different places if the need arises.

With the expanding fleet of electric buses, MCPS sets an example to other school districts across the country about what is possible for electric transportation. It also answers calls from students and staff alike from MCPS for providing more environmentally friendly changes to the school system. As McKnight said later in her speech at Walter Johnson, “The school bus is the first and last contact with our students each day, and a new, modern school bus reflects our commitment to an excellent experience for students.”