An electric school bus model.

An electric school bus model.

Schools across Virginia are looking to become more sustainable.

Counties in Northern and Central Virginia found a way to reduce their carbon footprint and save some money at the same time.

In September of 2019, Dominion Energy announced the first phase introducing electric school buses to select counties in the state, including Fairfax County schools.

Soon after, governor Ralph Northam announced that Virginia will dedicate $20 million in funds for speeding up the initiation of electric school buses in the state. The bill has finally reached the House of Delegates.

What does this mean for the community? How much of an impact will these new buses have? And how do these buses help the environment?

We discuss the details of Dominion’s newest sustainability program.

Produced by Richard Cunningham

Guests

  • Dan Weekley Vice President of Innovation Policy and Development, Dominion Energy
  • Brian Gorham Administrative Coordinator of Energy Management, Prince William County Public Schools

Transcript

  • 12:00:10

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast the new musical "Gun and Powder" makes its world premiere at Signature Theater. But first in 2019 students all across the nation voiced concern about the impending climate crisis. They staged protests with a set of demands. One such demand was for electric school buses to ferry kids to and from school. Early this month that demands was met by some school districts in Virginia.

  • 12:00:36

    KOJO NNAMDIDominion Energy announced a plan to bring electric school buses to select counties in Northern and Central Virginia including Fairfax County schools. Dominion is aiming to replace 100 percent of the diesel school buses in the entire Commonwealth of Virginia with zero emission electric buses in 10 years. Joining us by phone is Dan Weekley, Dominion Energy's Vice President of Innovation Policy and Development. Can you tell us what drove Dominion to start this initiative? Were demands from protesting students a factor?

  • 12:01:10

    DAN WEEKLEYWell, what really began this initiative was some time ago when we started looking about paths to help decarbonize our communities. And the real answer to that is to deal with transportation issues, because as we deal with climate transportation is the number one contributing factor to that. And then kind of on the background of that is we look for more renewables on our system. When I'm talking about our system I'm talking, you know, throughout most of Virginia as well as we're the electric operator in about a third of South Carolina and a portion of North Carolina.

  • 12:01:46

    DAN WEEKLEYAnd as we were looking to bring more renewables on to the system the one piece that is critical to that is battery storage. So we started looking about how we can join decarburization through transportation and renewables on to the system and it became with vehicle batteries. And then when you look about how a vehicle operates, a commercial vehicle, the larger vehicles, school buses became the clear and apparent path to that especially with all the negatives associated with school buses.

  • 12:02:18

    DAN WEEKLEYI think that most people know that air quality inside a school bus is five to six times worse inside the bus than it is outside, which affects our children as well as the drivers. So that's kind of the background of how we got so interested in electric school buses.

  • 12:02:33

    NNAMDIGive us the details. How many school districts are participating and how many buses are we talking about?

  • 12:02:39

    WEEKLEYSo it's over multiple phases. So the first phase when we announced the program in August of '19 was we wanted to implement and put 50 school buses across the Commonwealth in our service territory and we wanted to have them out by the end of 2020. Now as a reminder there are 17,000 schools buses across the entire footprint of the state. Thirteen thousand of those are in our service territory. And the Commonwealth absolutely replaces about 50 -- or excuse me replaces about 1,000 buses a year.

  • 12:03:16

    WEEKLEYSo I can tell you that the jurisdictions are very excited about this program. We announced an open solicitation. Any jurisdiction that wanted to apply could do so. And we had 34 jurisdictions apply. And we selected 16 jurisdictions about two weeks ago. And how we got to those 16 jurisdictions -- Dominion is broken down into three regions across the state, Northern, the Central area and then the Eastern part of the state. And we did our best to try to equally divide the buses between the three regions. So that's how we got to the 16.

  • 12:03:55

    NNAMDIWhat kind of environmental impact are we talking about in terms of emissions? What will these buses save as far as a carbon footprint?

  • 12:04:04

    WEEKLEYOh, the impact is huge. When you look at -- first of all let's talk about how well the buses operate. A diesel bus gets roughly six miles to the gallon. An electric bus will get about 17 miles equivalent to the gallon. And then if you look at the emissions avoided, taking a school bus off the road is between five and six vehicles. So you'll have better air quality inside the buses and no question, you will have better air quality outside the buses. And again, this kind of battery technology even further pushes for more renewable energy out there, because it gives us that battery technology that we need -- where we need to store, you know, energy derived from environmental -- or excuse me from renewable sources, because the sun is not always shining and the wind isn't always blowing. So it's a great tool for that.

  • 12:05:04

    NNAMDIDan Weekley, how much are schools projected to save cost wise?

  • 12:05:09

    WEEKLEYSo if I could back up a little bit, the basic premise of our program is that school districts will not pay anymore for an electric bus than they are currently paying for a diesel bus, which is about $100,000 a vehicle plus the options. And then under the Dominion program we will install all the infrastructure charging and we will own the batteries on the buses. So there's no additional cost to the jurisdictions except for one of the requirements to participate in our program is the school buses must be equipped with three point safety belts. Virginia does not require seatbelts in our buses, but safety is our top priority at Dominion and we've said if you want to participate in our program you have got to be willing to install seatbelts on the new buses moving forward.

  • 12:06:08

    WEEKLEYYou don't have to retrofit, you know, the older buses. It's all the new buses. But to your question, school districts can expect to save per month total cost between 6 and $700 per month per bus.

  • 12:06:23

    NNAMDIHere now is Charlie McGuire in Fairfax City. Charlie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:06:27

    CHARLIEHi. Yeah, I just think it's like the best thing I've heard in months. I live right in the middle of Fairfax City and often enough I'll get stuck behind five or six school buses just trying to cross town. It's not that I mind getting stuck behind them, but yeah. It's obvious to a lot of people I think that, yeah, one school bus equals five to six cars, get those things off the road, you know. Anything we can do for, I think public school students anywhere is fantastic. Even if it's just like the minimal amount to show them that people care and are trying to make positive changes in terms of infrastructure and the way they go through their daily lives. I think that those small things add up. Maybe new kids coming in might take them for granted, but I still think that it's absolutely imperative to the health of society that we put them first.

  • 12:07:20

    NNAMDIOkay. Charlie, thank ...

  • 12:07:21

    CHARLIEIn every way possible.

  • 12:07:21

    NNAMDICharlie, thank you very much for your call. Dan Weekley, when can Charlie expect to see electric buses in Fairfax City -- in Fairfax County? When can we expect to see these buses?

  • 12:07:31

    WEEKLEYSo the first 50 we will have out by then end of this year. Half of them will be delivered in August. And then half of them will be delivered by December. And then there is the second phase of the program is there's a bill moving through the Virginia General Assembly that would authorize to purchase up to 300 buses per year for the next five years. So at the end -- assuming that the General Assembly moves forward with that and Governor Northam agrees we would have more than 1500 buses across the Dominion footprint by 2025.

  • 12:08:10

    NNAMDIDominion Energy provides power across several states from Ohio to North and South Carolina. Why did you choose to partner with Virginia schools first?

  • 12:08:19

    WEEKLEYThe reason we started in Virginia is because, you know, we view this as our home state in that when we have the size -- the majority of our customers are here. We're headquartered here. We have roughly 2.5 million customers across the state. And we have been talking to South Carolina as well and they are interested, but the response that we have gotten from across the Commonwealth has just been fantastic. We actually believe that this may be one of the most popular programs that we've ever rolled out at Dominion. Governor's office has been great to deal with on this. The Department of Education has been working with us from the very beginning. It's just -- it's the true example of a working partnership.

  • 12:09:04

    NNAMDIHere now is Adam in McLean, Virginia. Adam, your turn.

  • 12:09:09

    ADAMSo I want to say that this is wonderful that Dominion is taking a leadership position on this and helping the school systems leap the problem of the upfront cost to help move this forward. I have lots of questions, lots of thoughts. But I do want to ask, you mentioned one bill in the legislature. There's also another bill, HB1140 by Delegate Marc Keam, which would expand the program with government funds, resources and otherwise to the rest of the Commonwealth and help make this something to cover all 17,000 or 20,000 school buses in the state not just the 13,000 in Dominion territory. Is Dominion supporting and working with Delegate Keam to try to make this a Commonwealth wide program or is Dominion only caring about where its ...

  • 12:09:56

    NNAMDIFootprint is.

  • 12:09:57

    ADAMWhere it's going to earn money?

  • 12:10:01

    WEEKLEYSo we have no concerns about the programs being expressed across the entire Commonwealth. I mean, if that's a decision where, you know, there are a number of other providers in Virginia. There are 15 or 16 different co-ops, Appalachian Power. If they wanted to be included in the bill, Senate bill 988, you know, that's a discussion for them to have to have with the Senate. We have no concerns if it was going to be statewide at all. That would be fine.

  • 12:10:28

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Adam. Here now is Stephen in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Stephen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:36

    STEPHANThanks. As far as power generation if we're plugging in additional vehicles for recharging that power has to be generated somewhere. And if it's generated in coal fire or coal burning power plants, doesn't that just increase the emissions from those power plants. So yeah, we're taking the vehicle off the road, but we're then increasing the demand if you will, I guess on the power generation. I mean, unless of course it's by wind or solar, but if they're coal burning power plants is that just not increasing demand at that power plant? And therefore increasing emissions from that plant.

  • 12:11:14

    NNAMDIDan Weekley?

  • 12:11:15

    WEEKLEYSo it's a really good question. I'm glad you brought it up, because you do have to look at the whole system. What I'll call the full circle. I think a lot of people are surprised when you look at Dominion's generation capacity. You know, roughly 10 years ago, almost 50 percent of our electric generation came via coal generated sources. Today it's roughly 13 percent. You're seeing what I'll refer to as the heavy fossil being retired across our system. That's why we're so excited about the solar energy program that we have out there. You're probably also aware we're proposing a 2600 megawatt offshore wind program. So I think the caller is exactly right. When you look at the full scope of generation electric school buses with their battery technology fit perfectly into that mix.

  • 12:12:07

    NNAMDII believe that I read that the buses will provide power the grid. Can you explain how that works?

  • 12:12:12

    WEEKLEYYeah. So this is a pretty new concept. It's called volts to grid. And so a school bus operates basically on the same cycle that school systems do, 180 days a year. So they're not primarily in use in the weekend. There is some summer usage with them, but most of the time that is in the morning timeframe. So we're looking at one of the big advantages that the batteries can bring to us primarily in the summer months. We can actually draw energy out of the batteries and put it out on the grid. And the thought process behind that is if we can pull the energy from the batteries that we would not have to start a power station of whatever fuel type just like the previous caller talked about.

  • 12:12:56

    WEEKLEYWe'll be able to bring that energy out of the batteries and put it onto the grid. Now, of course, the school systems will only pay for that energy one time. We will have, you know, basically to refill the batteries as it were at no charge to them. So that's the advantage that these batteries bring. They're actually a grid reliability resource for the company that benefits all customers.

  • 12:13:19

    NNAMDIJoining us now by phone is Brian Gorham, Prince William County School's Administrative Coordinator in Energy Management. Brian Gorham, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:13:28

    BRIAN GORHAMThank you for having me.

  • 12:13:29

    NNAMDIWhy did Prince William County schools decide to participate in this program or have I just asked you a no brainer?

  • 12:13:35

    GORHAMNo. I think it kind of is a no brainer, but certainly the buses provide for us an opportunity to study of the feasibility of electric buses and how it relates to the geography of our county. Operating costs obviously, you know, reducing fuel costs related to diesel and certainly the environmental and health benefits.

  • 12:13:57

    NNAMDIIs this is step in a broader initiative to make the school system more sustainable?

  • 12:14:02

    GORHAMOur school system is definitely, you know, has a trajectory toward a more sustainable future. And electric buses will certainly contribute to that. We do obviously prioritize fiscal stewardship and environmental sustainability. And try to keep a balance between those two. So I think this initial rollout and our ability to evaluate the impact will definitely help yield benefits for the future.

  • 12:14:30

    NNAMDIHow will these new buses impact the students? Are the riding experiences any different as far as you know, Dan Weekley?

  • 12:14:38

    WEEKLEYThe only -- the major difference is the students will have a much healthier environment inside the bus as well as much quieter. When you ride on an electric school bus, you know, there is no sound at all. As a matter of fact, one of the requirements that the state is going to put on them is the buses will actually have to play a song or some kind of music when they start slowing down to pick up the students, because so many times the kids run up to the curb when they hear the diesel bus come around the corner. So when it gets down to a certain speed, which is about 17 miles an hour, a song will come on so the kids will know to come out and get on the clean bus.

  • 12:15:20

    NNAMDILet's makes sure it's not the same song that plays on the ice cream truck. Brian Gorham, how many buses will Prince William County schools be receiving?

  • 12:15:29

    GORHAMWe are receiving two buses. We currently have a fleet of 900. We put about 700 buses on the road each day. So these two will allow us the opportunity, you know, again to study the impact, but to fit it in our evolution that we currently where we're replacing two anyway on any given year and upgrading. So this is an opportunity for us to do that at cost.

  • 12:15:55

    NNAMDIBrian Gorham, how much will the switch to electric buses cost?

  • 12:15:59

    GORHAMFor us, if we did not have the partnership with Dominion an electric school bus could impact our budget by doubling the cost per bus. Having the opportunity to work with Dominion however is a definite financial benefit to us. We do have to evaluate as Mr. Weekley noted that impact of adding the seatbelts. That cost is a cost that we will bear. However in the long run we believe that, you know, balancing again fiscal stewardship and environmental sustainability, this is a worthy endeavor to be a part of.

  • 12:16:35

    NNAMDIDan Weekley, where does the funding for these buses come from? Who pays for them?

  • 12:16:40

    WEEKLEYSo the first 50 it will come exclusive from Dominion. There will be no cost impact to the customers. But as we talked about earlier, assuming that the General Assembly and governor like the proposal and it moves forward and becomes law, there is a cost to the customers about that. At the end of the 2025, the fully loaded cost to the customers, we project it to be about $1.20 a month. But we think it will be much less than that because that is based on today's cost of buying the buses and etcetera. When we anticipate the bus cost coming down significantly when they get into mass production, we view that as the worst case scenario. So we think the cost will come down to the actual customer considerably.

  • 12:17:30

    NNAMDIHere's Brian in Falls Church, Virginia. Brian, your turn.

  • 12:17:34

    BRIANUh, yes, thanks, Kojo. One of my concerns is that Dominion already I think holds -- well some would say is a monopoly on energy in Virginia. And as they move into this they were talking about that they will maintain the ownership of the batteries and that the buses will roughly -- they'll charge roughly the same $100,000 amount for them. But my concern is that isn't this just another way that they're getting kind of a foothold in this industry. And once we've transitioned to these energy buses, which by the way I think it's a great thing. How does that -- are the ramifications financially in the long run?

  • 12:18:15

    NNAMDIWhat does this do for Dominion's bottom line, Dan Weekley?

  • 12:18:19

    WEEKLEYSo there is, you know, we will get the return that we get on other projects. This is not there's no special return or anything else. This is like any other asset for Dominion. I think part of the caller's question was we won't have any input into the daily decisions about the school bus operation. The school operator can completely continue to make those decisions about how that bus operates, which routes, etcetera. We viewed this as a partnership of a way to get electric buses, clean electric buses out there on the system. We're proud of the fact that this will be by far the largest program in the United States. It's bigger than any state program even bigger than California by a long way.

  • 12:19:11

    NNAMDIAnd finally here is Kathy in Arlington. Kathy, your turn.

  • 12:19:14

    KATHYThank you so much. First I want to commend Dominion. I think it's fantastic that you're coming out with these energy buses that are going to help our environment and our kids, and secondly the fact that you're putting seatbelts on these buses. As a mom of a public school child, I'm thrilled with that. That has haunted me that there aren't seatbelts on buses, but I would like to ask on behalf of my child and all the children that are in the schools, would the kids be able to plug in their phone or devices when they're on the bus?

  • 12:19:49

    NNAMDIAbsolutely not. No, not let me ask. Let me ask Brian Gorham that. Brian Gorham?

  • 12:19:53

    GORHAMCertainly there are options for that and it's a great question. I think we all understand kids and technology. I've got four of my own and they'd love to be able to plug in on the school bus. We'll have to evaluate certainly that infrastructure and that added expense. That is not a expense that's included in the grant opportunity at this time, but it's definitely an option that we can look at down the road.

  • 12:20:17

    NNAMDIBrian Gorham is a Prince William County school's Administrative Coordinator in Energy Management. Brian Gorham, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:20:24

    GORHAMThank you for your time.

  • 12:20:25

    NNAMDIDan Weekley is Dominion Energy's Vice President of Innovation Policy and Development. Dan Weekley, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:20:31

    WEEKLEYThank you for the opportunity.

  • 12:20:32

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back the new musical "Gun and Powder" makes its world premiere at Signature Theater. Guess who's already seen it? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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