Block Island, Westerly schools to become first in RI to use electric buses

Transportation

(WPRI) — Yellow school buses are going green.

This year, school committees in Westerly and New Shoreham voted in favor of moving away from diesel buses and purchasing Rhode Island’s first electric school buses.

“I don’t see a negative in an electric bus,” said Sue Guarino, transportation director for Westerly Public Schools.

Guarino has spent 18 months researching electric school buses.

“I know what these diesel buses are doing when they’re running into school areas and having to pick up kids at bus stops. Just what’s coming out of the exhaust has got to stop,” Guarino continued. “We need to do something right when we know we can, and this is the perfect way to do it.”

Westerly plans to replace two outgoing diesel buses in its fleet of more than two dozen with electric vehicles, a test run for a program Guarino and school superintendent Dr. Mark Garceau hope to expand in the future.

“Provided it works out, when it works out, we’ll be making it practice to continually replace diesel with electric,” Dr. Garceau said.

“We want to think globally, act locally, and do something for the kids that is long-term and helps our community,” Guarino said.

Soon, Block Island’s entire fleet will be electric — since the school only has one bus. School committee chair Jessica Willi said their electric bus will be specially designed to be ADA compliant.

“When teams come out to play Block Island, they’ll be picked up in an electric bus at the boat and brought to the field,” Willi said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Instead of a motor, the electric buses run on rechargeable batteries, with zero emissions while making their rounds.

The batteries in the buses can also store and eventually contribute power back to the grid, which is referred to as “V2G” or vehicle-to-grid technology.

“They don’t all just take power, they give power back to the grid, and at some point, we’ll generate revenue with it,” Guarino said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Both districts will be using Blue Bird electric school buses, and they’re working with Anderson Motors, Inc. to get the vehicles on the road.

The districts are working closely with their regional power companies (Block Island Utility District in New Shoreham and National Grid in Westerly) to get the electric vehicle programs up and running.

For both schools, the choice to switch to electric buses seemed like a “no-brainer.”

“Increasingly, we’re concerned about costs, obviously about sustainability, about the quality of the air our kids breathe everyday,” Dr. Garceau said. “Anything we can do to contribute to that is something that we wanna explore.”

But the change isn’t cheap. Guarino says electric buses are about four times as expensive as the typical diesel ones. The cost of installing charging stations and other infrastructure and startup expenses is also a factor.

“I would like to think eventually we would get around to it anyway, but it probably would have been far, far down the road,” Willi said.

But for Block Island, the switch is free.

An anonymous donor, working through the Block Island Solar Initiative, is contributing more than $400,000 as a free gift to the school department to pay for the bus, charger, connection materials, a transformer, and more.

Tony Pappas of the Block Island Solar Initiative, who is serving as a spokesperson for the anonymous donor, tells 12 News the donor wanted to see Block Island become a role model for moving toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuel consumption, something the donor had been worked towards for decades.

“His dream from 40 years ago is starting to become real,” Pappas said of the donor, who is a long-time resident of the island.

Willi praised “the generosity and the forethought of our anonymous donor, for thinking of the school. Really, it is for the future of Block Island.”

Westerly, on the other hand, will be paying for the buses using grants and funding from places like National Grid and the Department of Environmental Management, according to Guarino.

More money could be on the way. The new infrastructure bill, just signed by President Joe Biden, includes $5 billion to help schools nationwide but electric and low-emission buses.

“There will be even more money available, to lessen the cost so it’s worth replacing the bus for the community, and not going into debt to try to do it,” Guarino said.

Leaders at both schools tell 12 News they plan to have the buses up and running by the start of the 2022 school year.

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