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Saranac Lake Central prepares for electric buses

With long, cold, hilly routes, current tech would struggle, but board expects more improvements

Aaliyah Kilner shares a hug with Bloomingdale Elementary Principal Katie Laba as she gets off the bus on the first day of school in September 2023. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Central School District might have the toughest time out of any in New York meeting the upcoming state mandate to convert its bus fleet to be fully electric. School board members, however, are fully confident that they’ll be able to do it — given enough time for technology to improve, grant money to become available and the grid to expand.

Currently, districts are being told they cannot purchase diesel buses after 2027, and by 2035, their entire fleet should be electric.

In anticipation of this, SLCSD contracted with architectural consultants CPL for a routing study to optimize the charging infrastructure and performance of the buses. The district has not set plans to start buying electric buses yet, but it will soon. This study found that with the current number of buses in the district, the majority of buses are “at risk” of being unable to complete their current routes in very cold temperatures, which Saranac Lake experiences a lot. It’s common for the town to have double-digit sub-zero temperatures at points in the winter.

“We live in some of the most challenging parts of the state for electric buses,” SLCSD board member Nancy Bernstein said.

SLCSD has three uphill battles — literally, she said. On top of being the largest geographic district in the state — 640 square miles — and arguably the coldest, it is in a mountainous area.

“I drive an electric vehicle,” Bernstein said. “It’s probably 30% less range in the winter.”

But, she pointed out that diesel also struggles with range decreases in the cold.

The data

According to the study, 10 of the district’s 16 buses have routes averaging more than 100 miles per day — with the longest being 196 miles and the shortest 54 miles.

The two buses with the longest routes are at risk of not being able to complete their routes at temperatures under 20 degrees and seven of the other high-mileage buses are at risk of not being able to complete their routes at temperatures under 0 degrees, according to the study. Only one would not require a mid-day charge between the start and end of the school day — the 54-mile route.

Board member Mike Martin said the study quantified their challenges.

“It think it’s actually a little bit more scary looking at this data,” he said.

But it is a state mandate, and it’s a mandate they’re mostly happy to meet.

“Because I’m passionate about this stuff I’d love to see us have a full electric fleet like tomorrow,” Bernstein said. “But the technology has to catch up, and the state incentives have to catch up.”

Her professional job is centered on electricity and green energy, so she has a lot of knowledge on the topic.

As of now, with the current technology, Bernstein said SLCSD could not complete all its routes with the same number of buses year-round. Also, electric buses are currently more expensive.

“(But) the technology is advancing all the time,” Bernstein said. “The ranges are getting longer, and the batteries are getting better.”

She said demand should be growing with the state mandate, bringing better and more affordable batteries.

Rolling slow

The consultants recommended the district take a phased approach and start by converting three of the buses with the shortest routes first — moving slow as technology moves fast. Bernstein said they have a couple years before the deadlines.

“We’re not really in a rush,” Bernstein said. “But it’s sooner than you think.”

Also, there’s not enough electricity currently in the power lines passing by the bus garage on state Route 3 between Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale to support electric bus charging. Bernstein said the grid needs to expand capacity. The district plans to take this study to National Grid to let them know what they need. This could take years, she said.

The consultants recommended the district get buses with the largest battery possible — 315 kilowatts per hour.

They’ll want to be confident in a “worst case scenario,” Bernstein said — something like an unexpected early dismissal in frigid temperatures.

SLCSD applied for grant funds through a federal Environmental Protection Agency “lottery” but did not qualify as a district in need. Other districts in the North Country did. Bernstein said the district plans to seek more grant funding for the buses and infrastructure overhaul.

Diesel buses are rotated out of service every eight years, SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox said, adding that the body goes before the engine.

Board member Tori Thurston said she hopes a third-party assessor of battery range will emerge. Right now, she said there is no consistent rating and no verification outside of what companies claim.

Thurston said she asked representative from bus companies and the state Energy Research and Development Authority and said none of them knew yet where bus batteries will go when their life runs out. Bernstein said a system has not started yet, but there is a plan for the batteries to eventually get recycled — taken out of vehicles and demoted to stationary charging.

Software

The consultants said purchasing a charge management software is “vital” to the success of electric buses.

“Without (charge management software), when the buses arrive back at the depot, they all immediately start charging until the batteries are at capacity and then they stop,” according to the study “With CMS, the buses arrive back at the depot and the software calculates the most effective way to charge all the buses, staggering their charging times to avoid high demand costs. … This saves the district money and increases the lifespan of the buses because they are being charged more slowly.”

This avoids overlap and reaching a maximum capacity during peak demand times.

Bernstein said when an electric account uses enough electric per month, it becomes a “demand account” and the provider charges an extra fee based on the peak demand that customer draws over the course of a month. They need to know when high demand peaks will happen to keep the grid supplied.

Keeping bus charging levels consistent keeps that peak low — a height of 257.6 kW with the software compared to 1524 kW without, according to the study.

By charging buses in off-hours and not all at once, the district can avoid peak electric costs.

Future details

There are a lot of details still to be figured out. Bus parking at the garage will need to be rearranged. Electric buses need to be parked father apart for fire safety reasons, because their batteries burn hot and take special firefighting equipment.

The bus garage will need to be outfitted with charging infrastructure. Mechanics will need to be trained on electric buses.

The district could rearrange its bus routes or relocate the bus garage, but board members said their current paths and location are pretty much optimized.

Fox said they are discussing the need for chargers at all schools when buses from other districts are traveling for sports or other events with BOCES.

Board member Joe Henderson pointed out that this is not new technology. On a recent trip to Copenhagen, he said schools there already have all electric buses.

“These are solvable problems,” Henderson said.

Every year, the ballot for the district’s budget and school board election includes a proposition for acquiring new buses. Usually, these pass easily. But sometimes the votes are close. This year, voters in the neighboring Tupper Lake Central School District voted down the bus proposal by three votes, even though they passed the budget by 116 votes.

Bernstein was asked if she was concerned about these bus propositions passing in the future, given the politicized nature of electric vehicles, and opposition to the move away from combustion engines.

She said she’s met people from other school districts which have electric buses already who were not excited about the change and thought it would fail, but now are proponents of electrification.

“There’s a lot of misinformation that floats around,” Bernstein said.

She thinks there’s a lot of interest in Saranac Lake. And the district won’t be the first to convert, so it will be easier to digest, she believes.

Bernstein said buses are a good start in the long transition away from combustion engines to cleaner modes of transportation.

“Diesel buses stink,” she said. “I mean, they smell.”

Along with pollution, she said the fumes can be smelled inside and out.

Given her experience in the field, Bernstein said when she got on the board six years ago, friends kept asking her when they were getting electric buses. Now, that reality could be just a few years away.

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