Alaska’s first electric-powered school bus is performing well – even at 40 below

A school bus pulls up at a school in the dark.
The electric school bus drops off students at Tok School last January, when the temperature was 38 below. (Gerald Blackard)

Tok Transportation co-owner Gerald Blackard likes to joke that his electric-powered school bus is very reliable — even during a pandemic.

“It has not missed a single day of school,” he said in a recent interview. “COVID didn’t slow it down at all. It is COVID-resistant, I guess you could call it.”

Of course, Blackard isn’t seriously saying the bus has some sort of immunity to the coronavirus. But he was able to demonstrate that it ran the routes every school day classes were in session last year at the Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District, including those when the temperature dropped to nearly 40 below.

The bus is Alaska’s first and so far only electric-powered school bus. It’s in its second year of service for the school district. And with temperatures in the eastern Interior forecast to drop overnight to 20 below or colder in the coming week, it’s ability to operate in the cold will again be tested.

Blackard said he feels confident that all will go well, just like last year.

A man points to an electrical panel.
Gerald Blackard checks out the panel in the Tok Transportation bus barn. (Alaska Gateway School District)

“What we found out is the bus heated well,” he said. “It kept the interior at normal temperature.”

Normal in the sense that the inside of the bus must be kept at a minimum of 45 degrees, according to state regulations. The district requires the kids to dress warmly, so 45 feels comfortable. But Blackard said keeping the bus that warm at 30 or 40 below zero drains its batteries more quickly than it would on warmer days.

“Even with a little bit of insulation on the batteries and kind of covering up the engine compartment, to try to hold in as much heat as we could, we were still using more energy to heat the bus than we were to drive the bus,” he said.

Blackard said warming the bus during its runs on those cold days drained a little over half of the battery’s charge, whereas driving the bus used a bit more than 40%. He expresses that so-called efficiency in terms similar to that of a conventionally powered vehicle’s fuel economy.

“On January 27th, we had 38 below,” he said. “The bus’s efficiency that day was 3.46 kilowatts per mile. So this fall, in August-September, we were running between 1.4 and 1.7 kilowatts per mile.”

A school bus is parked next to a big solar panel.
Gerald Blackard uses his solar panels to help charge the electric bus. But the charger draws a maximum of 22 kilowatts, and the solar panels only generate a maximum output of 10.8 kilowatts. So, he says he either has to wait longer for the solar energy to charge the bus, or buy electricity from the local utility, Alaska Power and Telephone. (Gerald Blackard)

Blackhard said his solar-energy panels generate only half the electricity needed to charge the bus’s batteries, so he has to buy the rest from the local utility. He’s looking into adding a battery bank to the solar-power system to fully charge the bus without the grid backup.

“But that’s going to have to come at a later time, because that’s another cost that I don’t have the money to put for right now,” he said.

Blackard paid $50,000 last year to buy the $400,000 bus. A program administered by the Alaska Energy Authority paid for the rest.

Blackard said he’s been sharing the data he’s collected with the energy authority, as well as the University of Alaska Fairbanks Alaska Center for Energy and Power, Proterra, the Silicon Valley-based battery manufacturer, and Thomas, the bus’s North Carolina-based manufacturer.

“I’m in contact with them often,” he said, referring to Thomas. “And they’re always curious to see how things are going and making sure that it’s working properly.”

Blackard said he’s also sharing his data with nonprofits operated by Alaskans who share his enthusiasm for electric vehicles and renewable energy.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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