School bus mechanic warns of ‘economic disaster’ in deploying electric buses nationwide

In the rush to replace diesel school buses with electric ones, the U.S. educational system is financially endangering future generations, says a school bus mechanic in Colorado.

“Electric is…

In the rush to replace diesel school buses with electric ones, the U.S. educational system is financially endangering future generations, says a school bus mechanic in Colorado.

“Electric is just going to be an economic disaster for the entire country,” said Nick de Haan, who has inspected, repaired and maintained school buses since 2005. He requested the school district he works for to remain unnamed.

“I’m not against doing my part for the environment, but I think we’re being pushed into this before it’s financially feasible.”

De Haan called for a closer look at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean school bus program, which recently awarded $900 million to 530 school districts in an effort to replace 3,400 diesel buses with electric ones.

“Politicians are pushing to upgrade, but they don’t really think about the back end that needs to be done,” he told The Lion. 

‘Double-edged sword’ 

De Haan joins a growing list of journalists and school officials raising maintenance and safety concerns  over these buses. Perhaps the most important issue involves the electric batteries, which require substantial monitoring. 

As de Haan lives in a high-elevation area at 8,000 feet above sea level, he says such conditions have repercussions for any type of battery. 

“The colder it gets, the less amperage you have available,” de Haan said. “And so, the batteries actually have to be heated, or climate-controlled.” 

As a result, all electric buses come with a diesel heater provided by Webasto, an automotive supplier de Haan says often equips school buses. 

“These Webasto diesel-fired heaters literally heat the cooling system with the sole purpose of heating up the batteries and maintaining them at a specific temperature, whatever the engineers have designated,” he said, adding a typical temperature is around 50 degrees. 

“If they’re stored outside and you’re in single digits overnight, that heater’s running all night to keep those batteries at the optimal temperature.” 

Regions with warmer temperatures such as Arizona face the opposite problem – electric batteries need to be cooled before they are usable, de Haan explains. “They have a higher chance of failure rate. It’s a double-edged sword unless you have indoor parking for these buses, which is financially irresponsible.” 

Strains on the electrical grid 

In addition to parking challenges, other important utility upgrades involve boosting the current electrical grid. 

Utility companies in de Haan’s school district have agreed to upgrade their facilities to handle additional requirements for e-buses. However, they added a stipulation to pull electricity from the buses during high-demand times for power. 

Such demand times during the day could leave bus drivers stranded if they haven’t finished charging batteries for their afternoon drive. 

“If the utility companies pull power during the day and those batteries are not at 100% when they get ready to leave in the afternoon, they’re kind of up the creek essentially,” de Haan told The Lion. 

As 67% of the EPA’s funding will go to school districts in low-income, tribal and rural communities, these districts often have the least-developed infrastructure to handle e-buses. 

“In order for the bus to be viable, it would need a fast charger,” de Haan argues. “And from what I understand, the charging requirements require a lot of amperage. For keeping five buses or more, you’re talking about a major upgrade to the infrastructure at your location. The utility company is not going to do that for free. And so, the districts would be responsible for that.” 

De Haan cited one school district in the Denver metro area that ordered about 12 e-buses, which sat in the school’s parking lot for two years until enough infrastructure developed to support them. 

A similar incident occurred in Philadelphia, where 25 e-buses that debuted during the 2019 Democratic National Convention remain unused “due to breakdowns and lack of parts,” according to 

Safety concerns 

Another topic rarely discussed, but important to consider, involves training people to work safely on electric buses, de Haan says. 

“It deals with the high-voltage battery packs, which can be dangerous. If you’re not trained properly on how to deactivate or de-energize the system before you service it, you can actually burn yourself from an arc flash.” 

An arc flash, or flashover, occurs as light and heat when a massive electrical discharge or explosion – called an arc fault – takes place. Each day, an estimated 5 to 10 arc fault incidents occur nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“At worst case, you could electrocute yourself,” de Haan warns. 

Other safety concerns involve fire hazards from the electric battery packs. 

“I’ve seen the videos of buses in Europe that are all-electric catching on fire and burning, and not just burning slowly but burning quick, fast and in a hurry. You have a bus full of elementary kids – it’s like trying to herd cats. You’re not going to evacuate all of them in time.” 

Diesel buses also have the potential to catch on fire, but with a slower burn rate, according to de Haan. 

“You probably have more reaction time, from the smoke to the point where the bus is totally engulfed. In [the] 19 years I’ve been working on school buses, I know two diesel-powered buses that have caught fire, and it’s not because of the fuel. The diesel fuel is really hard to catch on fire, but it was due to a battery cable grounding out.” 

De Haan also expressed concerns over the safe disposal of electric battery packs, which can release heavy-metal toxins if thrown into landfills or improperly recycled: “From what I understand, it is an environmental disaster to dispose of these batteries. 

“Manufacturers nowadays might claim that they do research and development, but I can almost guarantee you the consumer is pretty much the guinea pig when it comes to new technology. They don’t have the time, money or resources to do R&D for any length of time.”