California school district becomes first in nation to go all electric buses

The days of diesel fumes choking the air for hundreds of Bay Area students appear to be in the rearview, thanks to a partnership deal struck by Oakland Unified School District.

In a Facebook post Thursday, Oakland Unified announced that it is the first school district in the nation to use a fully electric bus fleet after partnering with electric bus startup Zum.

The American Lung Assn. recently named the Bay Area as one of the 25 most polluted metropolitan areas in the country, with its year-round particle pollution or soot as fifth-worst in the nation.

“The families of Oakland are disproportionately disadvantaged and affected by high rates of asthma and exposure to air pollution from diesel fuels,” said Kim Raney, Oakland Unified’s executive director of transportation. “Providing our students with cleaner and quieter transportation on electric school buses will be a game changer ensuring they have an equitable and stronger chance of success in the classroom.”

The district's fleet consists of 74 electric buses and bidirectional chargers that can feed power back into the grid.

Read more: California is pumped about electric buses. Rural schools say they're a pain

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that required all newly purchased or leased state school buses to be zero-emission starting in 2035, with some exceptions for rural school districts giving them additional time. The state also offers grants and other benefits as an incentive to cover costs for districts.

Over the last two decades, the state has spent or allocated $1.2 billion to clean its aging diesel school bus fleet. The governor's office says an additional $1.8 billion is planned over the next five years for zero-emission buses and charging infrastructure.

Oakland Unified's new school buses removes an estimated 25,000 tons of greenhouse gasses from the environment annually, according to the company. They act like “virtual power plants” or VPPs, giving back roughly 2.1 gigawatt hours of energy back to the grid by charging overnight and running on electric batteries at high usage times.

“Buses are the ideal energy resource in that they sit idle during the day and during peak power usage hours,” Jenny Mayfield, Zūm’s vice president of communications, said in an email. “Thus, they can discharge and power the grid at these times.”

Read more: Boiling Point: Which cities are taking charge as California shifts to electric buses?

The company began working with Oakland Unified in 2020. The district transports more than 1,300 students — athletes, special needs, and others — daily. Oakland previously used the iconic yellow diesel buses to transport 15 or fewer students per ride, according to Zum. More than 70% of those students were in transit for more than one hour.

Zum’s AI technology allowed quick routes to be taken and to cut down on underutilized buses. Now about 97% of Oakland students travel less than an hour, with half finishing in 20 minutes or less, according to the company.

Zum — pronounced "zoom" — tracks bus energy usage through its AI-enabled platform that monitors inputs for operational requirements, battery charge levels and grid energy requirements to determine when to draw energy from the buses, Mayfield said. Most bus discharges back into the grid would take place between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Ritu Narayan, founder and CEO of Zum, said the time had come to “move beyond pilots” and into larger-scale sustainability solutions.

“Converting the Oakland Unified school bus fleet to 100% electric with VPP capability is the right step in that direction,” Narayan said in a statement. “This historic milestone is a win-win proposition: Electric school buses with V2G provide students with cleaner, fume-free transportation and allow us to send untapped energy from the bus batteries back to the grid, creating an enormous impact on grid resilience.”

Zum buses are also used in Los Angeles County, such as in Duarte Unified and in the Rosemead-based Garvey School District.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.