Posted in GreenBiz
March 29, 2022

School buses: The biggest batteries on wheels?


This article was adapted from Mobility Weekly, our free weekly newsletter. Register for a subscription here.

Every time Gregor Hintler talks to a fleet operator looking to electrify, they tell him their No. 1 challenge is infrastructure.

Upgrading the electrical grid to support a large number of new chargers is complex, time-consuming and expensive work. That’s why Hintler’s company, The Mobility House, is helping fleets minimize the amount of charging infrastructure they need in the first place.

“When you have more than a couple vehicles charging in one location, you always want to optimize when and how much vehicles are charging to reduce the cost of charging for the fleet,” Hintler said.

The Mobility House, a German company rapidly expanding in the U.S., accomplishes this with a piece of software called ChargePilot. It concentrates vehicle charging when electricity is cheapest so that fleets can install nameplate charging capacity to exceed available grid capacity. The end result is a fleet that’s ready to go at the time of departure with the lowest possible charging cost — saving sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars in upfront costs and thousands in monthly electricity demand charges.

Most of the company’s customers in the U.S. are school bus and transit fleets, two industries where this type of optimization is crucial to handle battery charging at scale.

“We believe that this market is going to accelerate very quickly, since a lot of cities and states have zero emission mandates for public transit,” said Hintler, the company’s U.S. managing director. He predicts a 30 percent annual growth rate, given new federal funding behind electrification, and the fact that only 0.5 percent of transit buses in the country are electric, and 95 percent of school buses still run on diesel. “The market is enormous,” he said.

The electrification of school buses is an especially ripe opportunity — one that just got a $5 billion boost from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that became law in November. There are some 500,000 school buses in the U.S., most of which are only used for a few hours each day and therefore have huge flexibility in charging.

Our goal is, we want to use those batteries in an aggregated way to provide different services to the grid. We want to use them as essentially one giant battery.

Zum, a company that has modernized student transportation with real-time tracking and efficiency upgrades, plans to add 10,000 electric buses to its fleet in the next four years. Ritu Narayan, its founder and CEO, said every electric bus it deploys saves 11 tons of carbon emissions per year.

But the electrification of buses has one other big benefit that both Zum and The Mobility House are banking on: Sending electricity back to the grid.

“School buses make a perfect use case to provide electricity back to the grid,” Narayan said, because their batteries are huge and they sit idle during peak hours. She estimates that a 10,000-vehicle fleet could send up to one gigawatt back to the grid over four years.

“That’s the power of electric school buses and what they can deliver,” Narayan said.

Vehicle-to-grid integration is still a ways off in the U.S., mostly due to regulatory hurdles. Hintler said The Mobility House has already developed this technology in Europe, where it has some 100,000 customers. 

“Our goal is, we want to use those batteries in an aggregated way to provide different services to the grid,” Hintler said. “We want to use them as essentially one giant battery.”

In Europe, the company has already demonstrated that an electric passenger vehicle can generate $1,000 in revenue by selling power back to the grid. With a bus battery, the potential for revenue in the energy market is even greater.

Hintler hopes the regulatory environment in the U.S. will allow for the same opportunity in the next few years, which would enable The Mobility House to go beyond simply throttling charging for its American customers.

He’s also encouraging more companies to join the effort. The European Union, for example, is aiming for 30 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Assuming a one-to-one charging ratio, that means 30 million chargers. Put another way, that would mean building 10,000 new chargers every single day between now and 2030.

“I always tell people, there is no competition,” Hintler said. “We need as many people as possible to join the industry and help us figure out how we are going to deploy EV charging at scale to make sure that we will be able to support this massive growth of EVs.”

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March 29, 2022 at 02:27PM

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