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BYD Has Strategy to Turn School Buses Green

The BYD Bus & Coach factory in Lancaster has added electric school buses to its product line.

Several school bus prototypes have been built, but production won’t begin until next year.The facility has a track record, having produced more than 500 electric buses for public transport agency in 13 states, including California. Additionally, the plant has made some 200 heavy duty trucks.Jim Skeen, a spokesman for BYD Motors Inc., said that performance and safety will be the big reasons why school districts will want to buy the zero-emission buses.

“We are going to give better range and performance than what is out there in the market and offer a complete suite of safety options,” Skeen said.

BYD Motors, in Los Angeles, is the U.S. subsidiary of Chinese electric vehicle and battery manufacturer BYD Co. Ltd. Its Lancaster facility opened in 2013 and now employs between 500 and 600 workers.The Lancaster plant has been expanded several times at a cost of $53 million since BYD bought it. In 2017, the manufacturing plant had an addition that brought its total space to 450,000 square feet. A 100,000-square-foot warehouse was opened in 2018.

Another subsidiary, BYD Energy, operates a battery manufacturing site in Lancaster, in what used to be a beer distribution warehouse.

“We took it over and added a few pieces of automation in there,” Skeen said.But it’s the main plant on 7th Street West on the city’s north side where all the activity takes place.

On a recent Thursday, between 70 and 80 transit buses were being worked on to fulfill contracts for the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, Long Beach and Anaheim.

When the Los Angeles DOT contract was awarded in November 2019, it was the largest single order of battery-electric buses to date in the United States. The 30-foot K7M has 22 seats, a range of up to 150 miles, and can be charged in 2.5 to 3 hours.But mixed in among the buses on the factory there were also school buses and the heavy-duty trucks.

Final assembly on the trucks is done in Lancaster, with the parts shipped in from elsewhere. The school buses had no work done on the inside as they are still under development.With length options of 35, 38, and 40 feet, BYD’s Type D battery-electric school bus is designed to transport students to classes, field trips, as well as athletic and band events. The Type D can seat up to 84 and can be equipped with an ADA liftgate. The bus has a range of up to 155 miles on a single charge, the company said in a release.

“We are raising the bar for design, innovation, range and quality, giving parents peace of mind knowing their children are benefitting from the safest school bus anywhere,” Stella Li, president of BYD North America, said in a statement. “At the same time, our buses will give operators the performance and cost savings that will make migrating to zero emission technology affordable and practical.”Savings questionFrank Girardot, director of communications for BYD Motors, said that the development of the school bus has been a long process.

“We looked at what school buses needed to have and what they need to be,” Girardot said. “We have to think about what these buses are doing – they are transporting our children.” Safety was an important consideration when designing the buses. They come equipped with sensors to detect pedestrians and cyclists when the bus is operating at slow speeds, electronic stability control to aid handling and a collision avoidance system.But it’s the BYD-made battery where the safety really starts, Girardot said.

“We are using a battery chemistry that has been proven to be safe, nontoxic and nonflammable,” he added. “Whereas just about every other battery out there has the potential to be frightening to parents putting their kids on an electric bus.”But Erik Neandross, chief executive of Gladstein Neandross & Associates, a Los Angeles clean transportation and alternative energy consultancy, cast a skeptical eye toward electric school buses.

Seen from the perspective of managing a fleet of vehicles, where it’s all about total cost of ownership, the challenge with a school bus is that they just don’t get driven that much, Neandross said.

A typical day in a school bus is a loop in the morning to pick kids up and a loop again in the afternoon to drop them off. Maybe there is another activity during the day – a field trip or transporting the band or football team. But “the thing is not running like a UPS truck,” he said.A UPS truck can use 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year, while a school bus may use only 2,500 gallons, Neandross continued.

“So, all the savings you get from fuel costs and the emissions from displacement of diesel are not that significant,” he explained.

With electric school buses coming with a steep price tag – a New York Times story from January 2020 put them at $400,000 – incentive dollars, most likely from government, will be needed to get the market up and running.Girardot at BYD said that the state of California has set aside money for the purchase of 1,000 electric school buses, along with the same number of transit buses and trucks in the next three years.

In Northern California, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. offers rebates for the purchase of electric fleet vehicles, with $4,000 going toward school buses and $9,000 going toward transit buses.But does it really make sense, Neandross asked, given the enormity of the climate issue the country faces and the air quality issues facing Southern California, to spend limited resources on electric school buses?“Are we getting the most bang for the buck?” he asked. “There is no debate about that. You are not. It becomes a political decision to say, ‘I want to spend the money on the school buses because it makes me feel good and it’s for the kids.’”Supporters of electric school buses point out that since they are parked for much of a day, they can be hooked up to the grid and can provide energy to it.In fact, in its release from June about the school buses, BYD promoted this aspect of the school buses, saying, “clean emission-free energy can be fed back into the classroom during school hours when the bus is parked, keeping classrooms well-lit and students and teachers plugged-in.”“That’s part of why people are so excited about (electric) school buses,” Neandross said. “Because they are parked for so long, they can have another valuable use besides transporting kids.” 

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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