Dominion Energy's electric school bus program offers valuable vehicle-to-grid lesson

Proterra electric school bus
The Proterra electric school bus.

Multiple industries have been waiting for years for commercial vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technologies to be deployed at any kind of scale. Now, it looks as if school buses could be the linchpin for the movement.

A couple of months ago, southern U.S. energy giant Dominion Energy announced the largest electric school bus initiative in the nation, with plans to deploy up to 1,050 buses on the roads of Virginia over the next five years. These could be used for local grid services, as well as reduce air pollution and lower carbon emissions. In the coming weeks, Dominion plans to reveal more information about the program, such as which Virginian schools will get the e-buses and what vendor(s) will make the vehicles. 

Winning such a contract will be a big deal for electric school bus vendors such as Lion Electric, Daimler's Thomas Built Buses (built by Proterra), Blue Bird and Navistar's IC Bus (which works with Volkswagen Truck & Bus).

At CalCharge's Battery Summit last week, attendees and speakers buzzed about the possibilities of such a project. Onstage, Proterra's vice president of technology, Dustin Grace, described the Dominion Energy RFP as the "biggest contract of its kind for the sector today," and said the program will help demonstrate a real-world business model for V2G. 

Why is it such a big deal? First, it's utility-led. In an age when many utilities still see electric vehicles as a threat to their grids, Dominion views the opportunity to use large school bus batteries as a way to stabilize the grid and even provide a back-up power source if the grid goes down. Dominion already has said that it's selecting the partner schools based on what value (storage at) their locations could provide to the local grid. 

 The program also creates a package that's a no-brainer for schools to join. Schools will get funding to convert from diesel to electric buses, and also will be able to get chargers and infrastructure installed at no cost. In addition, because electric buses are cheaper to operate and maintain than diesel buses, schools are supposed to see savings of 60 percent on operating and maintenance costs.   

Those savings also don't factor in the elimination of diesel fumes from the lungs of school kids riding the buses or the carbon emissions reduction of 810 million pounds, the equivalent to taking 78,000 cars off the road.

One of the most important learnings from this program will likely be how the business model of V2G actually works in a real-world setting at a sizable scale.

Some questions to answer: Will the charging rates be aligned with cost-effective charging of these batteries across the different regions that Dominion selects? And will the energy provider need help from tech companies to create smart algorithms to manage the collective bus battery charging and discharging?

Another important point will be to see the strategies for cost-effectively designing and deploying the charging infrastructure that will bi-directionally charge these bus batteries. Infrastructure providers such as Siemens are investing big in the business of selling grid gear and chargers for heavy-duty fleets such as buses. 

All eyes are on this project — across sectors — as it's the first-of-its-kind at this scale. We'll be following it closely.