‘Worked better than I expected’: Tok’s electric bus passes first cold-weather test.

A front view of a yellow school bus
The Tok electric bus looks like any other bus from the outside (Image from YouTube)

The eastern Interior town of Tok has Alaska’s first and only electric-powered school bus. The vehicle has in use since mid-October, and it was put to the test earlier this month, when it transported students without any problem after the temperature had dropped to 35 below.

Gerald “Stretch” Blackard bought the electric bus earlier this year with a nearly $400,000 state grant and $50,000 of his own money that he used to buy a solar-powered battery-recharging system. All because he wanted to find out whether electric vehicles and renewable energy can be harnessed to work in a cold climate, like Tok’s.

“For me, the interest is in the technology and what it can produce,” he said in an interview last week. “And I like being one that can help in the process of making things more available to other places.”

Blackard and his wife, Sara, own and operate Tok Transportation, which buses students to four area schools. He says he’d been thinking about electric-powered buses for a couple of years before he heard about an Alaska Energy Authority program intended to encourage school districts to invest in buses that produce fewer emissions.

The AEA program is funded by Alaska’s share of a settlement by Germany-based Volkswagen after company officials admitted they falsified its vehicles’ emissions ratings.

Seven districts around the state that got funding through the program bought cleaner-burning diesel-powered buses. The eighth, Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District, used its share to invest in an even cleaner technology.  

“This is the first electric school bus in Alaska,” he said, “and it’s also in one of the coldest climates.”

So, to Blackard, it seemed like the perfect place to test electric-vehicle technology. And school district officials were on board with the idea, because as Superintendent Scott MacManus says, the bus would complement the district’s other renewable-energy projects – like the Tok School’s biomass-fueled heat and power plant.

“Having the first electric bus in Alaska is really exciting, and it fits right in with what Tok and the Alaska Gateway School District have been doing with alternative energy,” MacManus said. “And, y’know, it’s the direction that the world needs to be moving in.”

But Blackard says officials with the Alaska Energy Authority initially were reluctant to go along with his proposal because they said he’d be recharging the bus with power from the local utility, which generates electricity with diesel-fired generators.

“The concern was that I was going to be swapping one diesel-burner for another diesel-burner,” he said. “So, as part of the grant, they required me to do something to offset that part of it. So that’s where the solar came in.”

Blackard says the solar-powered battery charger worked pretty well last month, producing most of the power needed to recharge the bus’s batteries. But this month, as the days grew shorter and the sun was barely clearing the horizon, he relied increasingly on the local grid to recharge.

“This time of year, we don’t get much solar,” he said.

The solution, Blackard says, is to set up a bank of batteries to store the solar energy collected during the day, then use it to recharge the bus’s batteries. He plans to invest in that system in the coming year.

His goal this year is focus on how well the bus functions in cold weather. He says so far it’s doing pretty well, based on its performance during a cold snap earlier this month.
“We had a couple of days, one that was 30 below, one that was 35 below, where we ran the bus,” he said, “and it worked better than I expected.”

Blackard says that’s because he was able to solve the problem that causes electric-vehicle batteries to drain quickly in cold climates, which is that they discharge so much current to keep the vehicle warm that it severely limits the amount left over to power its motor. So he insulated the battery compartment and parks the bus in a warm garage before and after it’s operated

He says it didn’t have a problem on the 35-mile run to and from Tok School. And it kept the temperature inside the bus at or above 45 degrees, as the state requires.

“It was a lot warmer than our old buses!” he said.

Blackard says he had one of those older diesel-powered buses ready to go if the electric bus had problems. But because it ran smoothly, the old diesel remained parked at the bus barn – and it didn’t emit even a whiff of exhaust.