Whitefish part of study on electric school buses

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Whitefish School District will join other schools in the Valley in a study on the potential benefits of using electric school buses.

David Bopp, a researcher with Flathead Electric Co-operative, is leading the study as part of a master’s degree dissertation for the Graduate School of the Environment Centre for Alternative Technology, based in Pantperthog, Wales.

The study will look at historical data, such as bus routes, mileage and fuel efficiency, to look at the possible costs and benefits of incorporating electric buses in the Flathead Bopp said in explaining the project to the Whitefish School Board.

“There have been a number of studies done already on this, but with the changing nature of the technology I’m going to be updating some of the inputs on the analyses and trying to bring in some actual data from some pilots going on in Massachusetts right now,” Bopp said. “With the idea being, in the end, if we have some positive outcomes and interests from the local school districts, we could potentially put together a grant application to the state to try to get a pilot program here to bring in a few electric school buses also.”

Bopp talked about using state grant money after Volkswagen manufactured and sold vehicles designed to defeat emissions tests while emitting nitrogen oxide pollution at levels 40 times more than allowed in the Clean Air Act. A total of $2.9 billion from Volkswagen was put in an Environmental Mitigation Trust to be used for projects that help reduce pollution.

Trustee Ruth Harrison asked Bopp how extensive the data collection would be.

Bopp said there isn’t any new data being collected, but instead he’ll just be analyzing past data.

“I’m going off of all the historicals — route information, distances, mileage, miles-per-gallon. It would be collecting data that was already in existence,” he said. “This is a really wonderful opportunity outside of the electrification of buses and testing that feasibility, but to actually look at bus routes and efficiencies, losses and gains.”

Bopp also said he talked with Dale Duff of Rocky Mountain Transportation, who the school contracts for student buses, and got a green light.

“Dale was encouraging of that element of it, just to have the internal review,” Bopp said.

Board Chair Nick Polumbus also asked Bopp if there was any way to involve students in his research process.

Bopp said he didn’t see any reason not to include students, and the district’s dedication to sustainability made him excited to get Whitefish on board.

“One reason I would like to get Whitefish’s data is that they’re currently the leader in the Valley on emissions concerns, and you already have a group that’s worked on that that’s interested in that pathway,” Bopp said. “This is going a little farther, where you reduce not only emissions at the school, but also along the routes.”

The study is expected to conclude in May and Bopp expects to have results by the end of June, he said.

Ryder Delaloye, the district’s curriculum director, said Flathead Electric has been a great partner for the schools, noting projects in the recent years to conserve energy in the district.

“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Flathead Electric. Two or three years ago, [facilities director Chad Smith] engaged with them and we received rebates on modifications that we did to improve our lighting system,” Delaloye said. “They were really gracious with us and helped us along that process and saved the school district thousands of dollars in immediate rebates and through those retrofits will continue to save the school district significant amounts money and resources into the future.”

At the same time, Flathead Electric is also introducing a survey to find businesses interested in partnering with it to provide electric vehicle charging stations.

Wendy Ostrom Price, public relations officer for Flathead Electric, said with the growing market of electric vehicles, the question isn’t if, but when they’ll make it to the Valley.

“You don’t know when it’s going to come out, how quickly, but you better be ready, because it’s going to come out,” she said.

The survey will help the Valley plan for the presence and impact of electric vehicles in the future, Flathead Electric General Manager Mark Johnson noted in a release.

“Electric vehicles provide an opportunity for FEC to expand services for members, and the exploration we’re doing now will allow us to do so in a manner that mitigates their impact on the Co-op’s costs and therefore on member costs,” he said.

The survey will be used to identify candidates for an upcoming EV charging pilot program as well as to gather data for the Co-op to use in applying for grants to reduce installation costs of electric vehicle chargers. Those interested can visit www.flatheadelectric.com/ev to complete the survey.

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