Seattle Public Schools

100% Clean Energy by 2040 through electrification of buildings and transport

Background

Seattle Public Schools manages approximately 7,500,000 square feet of building space, transports children to and from school every day, and maintains its own fleet of vehicles. Although the school system has been very proactive in managing the energy efficiency of its buildings, it does not have a plan for electrifying its building or transportation, not does it calculate it own greenhouse gas emissions. In Feb 2021, the School Board passed a non-binding resolution to begin the process of transitioning to 100% clean energy by 2040, with an emphasis on environmental equity. The resolution calls for the creation of a taskforce which would come up with a transition plan, and make regular reports on progress back to the school board.

This is part of a nationwide effort by the Sierra Club for clean schools. The Sierra Club has put together a toolkit for school systems, including the Clean Schools Handbook, and the 100% Clean Energy School Districts Handbook.

Timeline

April 30, 2021 – Implementation task force is established

Nov. 2021 – preliminary scope of implementation for feedback and refinement

Jan 3, 2022 — Completed implementation plan goes before the school board

McClennon Report

SPS commissioned a report on how to transition to clean energy. A draft has been given to SPS, and a slide deck presentation of it was given to the BEX and BTA Capital Programs Oversight Committee on Nov 13, 2020. The report recommends setting the district adopt a goal of being carbon positive by 2040. It's sets schedule for how many building retrofits and "renewables" would have to be done each year to make that possible. It recommends establishing new positions for a Chief Sustainability Director and an Environmental Justice Director. It advocates for tracking and minimizing Embodied Carbon. It suggests a Purchase Agreement for renewable power. And it advocates for a district resilience plan. It calls for public reporting of the district's greenhouse gas emissions.

Buildings

Seattle Public Schools is in the middle of a long process to refurbish its schools. Many of these are already completed, and some are still in process, funded by a school levy passed in 2019 to fund school construction, building improvements, and technology improvements. There are currently 10 schools slated for major improvements under this levy, with two more in the planning process. One question is whether there was more spending than originally anticipated for technology improvements due to the coronovirus epidemic, and if so, how this might impact the capital projects.

SPS also has already done some major energy efficiency work, including participation in the city's Building Tune-Up Accelerator program. It would be interesting to find out what further improvements they think they could make given more funding, and how the cost of those improvements compare to the cost of electrification in terms of carbon pollution saved.

One complication SPS has faced is that a number of the schools are designated as Landmark Buildings, and any changes to the buildings must be approved by the Landmark Commission. The Commission generally considers windows to be architecturally important, and will only approve replacement of some of the old single pane windows with double pane windows if it can be shown that learning will be negatively impacted by the old windows; they do not take into consideration the energy efficiency improvements of new windows.

The Washington Clean Energy Fund may have some grants for this kind of electrification project.

Transportation

Seattle Public Schools provides transportation for high school students under a program that allows them to ride Metro buses, while K-8 students ride school buses under a contract with First Student. Because the district does not own its own buses, it is not eligible to receive grant money for electrification from the state. The district does not have its own land for bus parking, and as a result the last three contract periods the district has had only a single bidder. Without land for parking, other bidders have been shut out. The lack of land is a key roadblock to electrification, because the cost of the recharging infrastructure for the duration of a short contract of 3-7 years is high. One possibility would be for the city to lease to the district some land that could be used, and while it might be difficult to find a single large property capable of holding all the buses, it might be possible to find a number of smaller properties that could. By distributing the parking areas, it might make the electrification cheaper, since accommodating a smaller number of buses can be done without upgrading the local grid. Further, it might mean that the buses do not have to travel as far to start and end their routes, which would reduce costs caused by traffic delays, driver hours, and fuel costs.

First Student currently has 5.5 acres in Georgetown, and 1.5 in Lake City. The School district currently uses 420 buses, of which 220 are smaller capacity buses, and 200 are larger capacity buses. Most of the buses have two routes they run each morning, and two more in the afternoon. Smaller buses used for special need programs run all day.

First Student has had many service complaints from parents, particularly parents of special needs children. First Student is also for sale. The contract is due a the end of this year for either extension, or opening it up to a new contract with new bidders. First Student serves 1100 different school districts in the US, and its parent company is currently up for sale. Many other school bus vendors are having a very hard time financially because of Covid-19, and some of them may well go out of business. For all these reasons, and to make electrification easier, it may make sense for the school district to take back management and ownership of the buses & transportation service.

The State commissioned a study published Nov 2020 on how to electrify all of its public fleets, state and local governments included. They concluded that from a cost point of view, school buses aren't in the top tier. See the Electrification Assessment of Public Vehicles in Washington. The State did have a grant program for using VW diesel settlement funds to buy electric school buses, 40 electric school buses headed to Washington districts.

Here's a short video on bus electrification (touches on school buses at the end). The interesting twist on this is that you can buy the bus but lease the battery:

School Bus Market

About 33,000 to 35,000 new school buses are sold in the US each year. Navistar International Corp makes the ChargE, Thomas Built Buses (a Daimler subsidiary) has the Saf-T-Liner eC2, and Lion Electric makes the eLion. Costs of buses varies from about $200,00 to $400,000 for electric; a diesel school bus is $100,000 to $150,000. The savings in maintenance and fuel costs for electric vs diesel is about $120,000 per bus over a 20-year lifespan (findings from the California Energy Commission).

Vehicle to Grid

There has been some speculation that using vehicle to grid technology would reduce the cost of the buses by using them to store energy that can be sold back to the grid for surge capacity in the evenings. However, the savings from this in the Northwest grid would be small, because our grid is very stable from the use of hydropower. Trying out vehicle to grid is therefore not likely cost effective in Washington.

Federal Programs

A bill has been introduced to the Senate to fund grants for local school districts to upgrade to electric buses, the Clean School Bus Act. The EPA currently has a small program to fund vehicle replacement or refurbishment of older diesel buses. Their website suggests that buses reduce idling, which may not always be possible when the bus is driven in traffic.

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