By Sarah Smith
Electric school buses are coming to rural Colorado. Not only do they reduce emissions and provide environmental advantages, but electric buses also provide health benefits to riders. Diesel vehicles emit tailpipe emissions linked to asthma, respiratory illness and cancer. Electric school buses do not emit exhaust, entirely eliminating these health risks. That is an attractive selling point when schools think about the well-being of students.
Currently, 95% of the state’s school buses run on diesel, but Colorado’s electric cooperatives are on a mission to change that statistic. Currently three Colorado co-ops, Mountain Parks Electric, in Granby, La Plata Electric Association in Durango and Yampa Valley Electric Association in Steamboat Springs, are trailblazers in providing electric school buses to their communities.
The first all-electric school bus in rural Colorado (and second in the state) made its grand entrance in Kremmling this spring with the help of MPE; its power supplier, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association; and a grant funded by the Regional Air Quality Council’s ALT Fuels Colorado program. The West Grand School District is now reaping the benefits of switching to an electric school bus. Not only does this mean cleaner and quieter vehicles for students to ride in, but it will also significantly reduce fuel costs.
The small school district already budgeted to replace one of its buses with another diesel bus at a ticket price of $200,000. Although electric buses cost twice that amount — typically ringing in at $400,000 — after qualifying for the RAQC grant and the added contributions from MPE and Tri-State, the district received the bus at no cost. (MPE used capital credits unclaimed by previous members to help fund the new and improved mode of transportation.)
MPE is the first electric co-op in Colorado to help provide an electric school bus to one of its school districts. The electric bus means cleaner air for the entire community. It also saves thousands of dollars a year in maintenance and fuel costs. Currently, the power needed to charge the bus includes more than 30% renewable energy; the amount of renewable energy is projected to grow to 50% by 2024.
MPE spearheaded the funding and support of electric school buses, but LPEA and YVEA are not far behind.
LPEA was set to deliver the next electric school bus as the 2021 school year starts. The Durango School District 9-R received a grant also funded by RAQC to kick-start its project. The grant provided the school district $328,803 to purchase and install a fully electric school bus and related charging infrastructure. LPEA contributed an additional $150,000 to complete the project.
The environmental and health benefits, along with the annual cost savings, are all exciting advantages of securing the electric bus. Like the district in Kremmling, Durango was planning to purchase a new diesel bus to replace an old one in its fleet, but with the financial assistance of the grant and LPEA, it is receiving the bus at no cost to the district.
This particular bus will be the first vehicle-to-grid installation in LPEA’s service territory. LPEA will use a technology called bidirectional charging. This allows the bus to pull electricity from the grid during off-peak hours. But LPEA can reverse that flow and pull electricity from the bus onto the grid during critical times. It’s a win-win scenario for the school district and LPEA.
“The payback of installing this vehicle grid is compelling,” said Dominic May, the energy resource program architect at LPEA. “School buses charge very nicely off-peak. The timing works well with school buses because it avoids the evening peaks, and midday charging sessions also get maximum solar. Furthermore, charging these electric buses only uses one-eighth of the cost of diesel. By installing this grid, LPEA will inevitably make money back each year.”
The project is full steam ahead, and LPEA looks forward to unveiling the new electric bus to the Durango school district this fall.
In northern Colorado, the Hayden School District will be making the switch to an electric bus for its students this year. Steamboat Springs has been in the process of making the switch to electric buses in its city bus fleet. The town tested two electric buses to evaluate their mileage, emissions and safety and concluded that the electric vehicles were successful.
“We really see the benefits of electrifying many sectors, and transportation is one of them,” said Megan Moore-Kemp, energy solutions manager at YVEA. “Some of the benefits of electric buses to our citizens is that they do cost less over the long term; they’re less expensive to charge, fuel and maintain than gas-powered vehicles; and they cut emissions.”
When the Hayden School District approached YVEA about its plans to apply for the RAQC grant, YVEA happily wrote a letter of support. The co-op collaborated with the school board from an innovation standpoint, offering specifics on what a fair electric rate would be and exploring what infrastructure costs would look like. “YVEA believes this is a very important project and we were happy to collaborate with our partners to achieve their clean energy goals,” said Carly Davidson, public relations specialist at YVEA.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for electric buses in the state as other electric co-ops work toward bringing electric school buses to their communities. These electric vehicles will provide environmental and financial benefits to Colorado schools. Colorado’s electric co-ops are excited to be leaders in the process.
Sarah Smith is a freelance writer covering topics important to Colorado’s electric cooperatives.
San Isabel Electric, headquartered in Pueblo West, joined the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and 16 other electric cooperatives to apply for $8 million in federal grants to bring electric vehicles to low-income rural communities.
Most of the proposed co-op projects would install public EV charging stations at key locations such as low-income apartment complexes, medical facilities, parks and highway corridors, said Brian Sloboda, NRECA’s director of consumer solutions.
“In some cases, these would be the first public chargers that anyone in the community has ever seen,” he said.
The DOE will fund 50% of the cost of the projects, leaving co-ops and any community partners to pay the rest. The agency will announce a maximum of five winners at the end of the highly competitive process in October. The co-ops are competing as one unit, rather than as individual businesses, with NRECA as the project leader.
“I don’t think you can find another team that represents such a diverse group of utilities, projects and communities and that meets the ambitious goals of the Department of Energy,” Sloboda said.
Despite increasing interest in EV charging by for-profit companies, “few companies are building this infrastructure and trying to grow EVs in the rural areas except these non-profit, consumer-owned electric cooperatives,” he said.
“It’s a long-haul investment that’s not going to pay off overnight,” Sloboda said. “This is where we need the leadership from the DOE in recognizing the needs of these underserved rural communities. Without co-ops working with the DOE, we probably won’t see rapid progress.”
CORE Electric Cooperative (formally Intermountain Rural Electric Association) is building a new substation in Franktown to serve load growth between its existing Bayou and Castle Rock substations.
The new 115-kilovolt to 12.5-kilovolt facility will provide reliable power to the area and help relieve the co-op’s Bayou and Castle Rock substations. The project started in mid-May and the co-op anticipates construction will be completed by December. The substation is expected to be in operation by February 2022.
The Sedalia-based electric cooperative serves over 160,000 consumer-members across its 5,000-square mile service territory. In addition to this new substation, the co-op plans to build 12 feeders over the next three to five years as additional load is added to the system.
In mid-August, Delta-Montrose Electric Association in Montrose was awarded more than $10.5 million in grants to help expand its broadband network to remote, rural communities within Montrose and Delta counties. The funds come from the USDA’s Rural Utility Services Reconnect program. In response to the passing of the bill and the grant award to DMEA, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said the electric co-op and its internet subsidiary, Elevate Internet, set the standard for quality broadband in rural communities.
Coming to the area is about 261 miles of new mainline fiber connecting 2,410 households, three educational facilities, 89 businesses and 115 farms. The grant funds make it possible for DMEA and Elevate Internet to provide symmetrical gigabit speeds to another 6,877 people across its rural service territory.
The network DMEA’s Elevate will construct is a 100% fiber optic network. This is a future-proof network that will diminish the digital divide for homes and businesses for 50 years or more.
DMEA Chief Technology Officer Kent Blackwell said in a recent press release, “This is a great day for DMEA and its members. With these grant funds, a huge area for our membership now has light at the end of the tunnel, bringing with it enormous opportunities for our rural farming communities. These areas can now look forward to having a digital opportunity that has, until now, typically only been available to urban communities.
“Elevate is truly focused on its membership, we are driven every day to find sources of funding to make these network extensions happen in financially responsible ways. It is not an easy task, but unlike our competitors that are driven by profits and margins, Elevate is truly driven by customer satisfaction. So to have an announcement from the USDA like this is 10 million reasons to be happy for our members,” Blackwell said.
Rural residents across the area are now one step closer to a modern internet connection and increased access to online education and telework.
San Miguel Power Association is taking time during the exceptional drought conditions the West is experiencing to explore and incorporate innovative solutions to prevent wildland fires in its service territory.
Like any electric co-op does in high-risk fire areas, SMPA transports electricity through fire zones that are made up of dry, wooded terrain. There is the risk that power lines could spark a fire. In proactive measures, the Nucla-based co-op’s engineers and mapping technicians are building fire map layers to stage a plan for the deployment of “Trip Saver” devices throughout its grid.
The Trip Saver replaces standard fuses on power lines and uses a vacuum interrupter that prevents sparks or heated materials from being discharged. This helps to reduce the chance of a wildfire caused by co-op infrastructure and equipment.
Another added benefit of a Trip Saver is that power outages don’t last very long. After the fault is cleared (80% resolve on their own), the device is able to reclose the circuit without requiring a service crew to drive to the outage location and replace the fuse.
Morgan County REA was excited to announce that it recently issued its first rebate for an EV Level 2 home charger installed in its service territory. An MCREA consumer-member purchased a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle and asked the Fort Morgan-based electric cooperative to assist with finding home charging solutions.
MCREA offers rebates of 50% of the charging equipment cost, up to $250 to help offset expenses when its consumer-members install home charging equipment.
Installing a Level 2 charger at home can often provide a full charge by plugging in the EV overnight, which helps EV drivers avoid costlier Level 3 fast charging station fees.