Electric school bus charges up Reedley district

The nation's first electric school bus has been delivered to a district in Reedley, but officials there are so busy displaying the green-tinged vehicle that it hasn't hauled any kids.

"It just keeps buzzing around," said John Clements, director of transportation for Kings Canyon Unified School District.

The "eTrans" bus visited the state Capitol, and will soon play a starring role at events in Kansas City and San Diego. Representatives of the California Energy Commission, California Air Resources Board and other organizations have climbed aboard for rides, but it hasn't stopped moving long enough for the California Highway Patrol to certify it to haul students. Clements hopes the distinctive bus, which has the words "The Power to Change the World" emblazoned on its side, will carry its first students in March.

That first ride will culminate an effort that started two years ago, when Clements shared his vision with representatives of a school bus company who were vising the district. A design was prepared and the bus was built using five different funding sources. The district's contribution was only $15,000.

For that, the district received a bus that accommodates 24 students and, at today's oil prices, save $5,400 in fuel costs annually. It has zero emissions and will never need an oil change.

The bus can travel about 100 miles on each charge. The charging process takes six to eight hours.

Sixty-seven buses transport 4,400 students each day in the sprawling 600 square-mile district. This is the first electric bus, but it probably won't be the only fuel-efficient one. Almost $500,000 from the AB 118 Advanced Technology Demonstration Project fund will fund hybrid models that, through a demonstration project, will be loaned to other districts, Clements said.

The distinction of having the first electric school bus is pretty exciting for Clements. He told a Reedley Exponent reporter that it "ranks up there with getting married, having babies and completing my master's degree at age 53..." Read the Exponent story here.

Even more amazing, though, is the noise - or rather the lack of it. The rattling clap-clap of a standard diesel engine is history. "There is just a little hum to it," Clements said.

And Clements is humming a lot more these days, knowing that he has the only electric school bus in the country - although he doubts that will last forever. He suspects they will become more common when the buses get a little larger and can travel further on a charge.

"I think this is just the start," he said.

That could indeed be true. Electric vehicles are becoming more common as oil prices rise, government agencies encourage them and as auto dealers market them. Commercially, fleet managers are being drawn to their lower operating costs.

This MIT-Staples study found that electric-powered delivery trucks cost 9 percent to 12 percent less to operate, although they can cost three times more to buy. However, purchase prices are expected to drop as batteries fall in cost. Surprisingly, the study found that drivers preferred the electrical models.

And more businesses, such as IKEA in the Bay area, are installing chargers to accommodate the projected growth of electric vehicles.

Photo: John Clements with the electric school bus in front of California's Capitol