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'A good step forward': Amherst schools celebrate rollout of electric buses

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The rollout of Amherst County Public Schools’ first two electric school buses brought cheers and positive reviews among a crowd of educators and students celebrating the historic move Sept. 14 at Amelon Elementary School.

Bus 1

Amherst County Public Schools Superintendent William Wells and School Board members John Grieser (center), Priscilla Liggon and Chris Terry pose for a picture in front of a new electric school bus.

For the past several weeks the two buses, referred to as “Jouley,” have been making the rounds for Amelon Elementary and Amherst County High School at about 130 miles per eight hours of electric charging, said Tim Hoden, the division’s chief operations officer.

The buses were made possible from a grant program through Appalachian Power Company, a subsidiary of American Electric Power, and a third electric bus is being built through an additional AEP grant, according to Hoden.

“Over the course of the next few months we will be monitoring the cost benefit of these electric buses,” Hoden said. “These buses will provide zero emission and are better for the environment ... and studies indicate a 60% lower maintenance cost as obtained from using an electric bus.”

Currently, the division runs about 55 buses per day on 250 routes that transport about 3,000 students, he said.

“The addition of electric buses is exciting and will be a window to the future of student transportation,” Hoden said.

Bus 8

A charging station was installed at Amherst County Schools’ transportation headquarters through a grant program from Appalachian Power Company.

Larry Jackson, director of external affairs for AEP, attended Wednesday’s celebration and said it’s great for the power company to partner with the school system in the endeavor.

“We’ve never had an exciting time like we’re having now as we’re converting to more renewable energy: solar, wind, hydro,” Jackson said, adding the transfer to electric is wonderful to watch.

Caley Edgerly, president and CEO of Sonny Merryman Inc., the Evington-based dealership for the buses, complimented Amherst school leaders for pursuing the opportunity to add electric vehicles to its fleet.

“Whoever’s desk that fell upon had a lot of courage,” Edgerly said. “You’re really innovators. And you’re doing something special and we have these two buses here doing very important things. We thank you for having the courage to do it.”

Bus 11

Bus driver Bill Cox said the new electric bus takes getting used to but has many advantages, including air conditioning.

He urged the Amherst community to be proud for being early innovators in embracing electric buses, referring to one of the vehicles as a “she.”

“I always think of a school bus as a community member. This vehicle is going to be running the roads of Amherst County for the next 20 years,” Edgerly said. “She’s going to be forever a part of your community.”

Edgerly said electric buses are “cool to drive and fun” and more cost effective than diesel buses.

“It’s the right thing to do and drivers want to get on this bus because it’s something special,” Edgerly said. “This is about educating our future and our kids on how clean a vehicle can be.”

Bus 14

Three Amherst County Public Schools students who ride on the two electric buses cut a ribbon during a Sept. 14, 2022 celebration event at Amelon Elementary School in Madison Heights.

He said replacing a traditional diesel bus with an electric bus can eliminate 14 tons of greenhouse gas annually, the equivalent of filling 500,000 balloons.

“And I hope your kids are super excited to be on these buses because we are super excited to deliver them to you,” Edgerly said.

Appalachian Power Co. announced in November the awarding of $2.1 million in grants to five Virginia school systems, including Campbell and Bedford counties’ divisions, as well as Montgomery and Washington counties, toward the purchase of nine energy-efficient buses.

Schools were eligible to receive $250,000 per bus plus $4,175 toward charging equipment and installation, according to APCo. To qualify, each school system had to agree to disable or scrap a conventional diesel bus and replace it with a new electric model, APCo has said.

Bus 15

A look at the engine in one of the two new electric buses.

The grant program was part of a settlement agreement between AEP and the Environmental Protection Agency over Clean Air Act violations.

“We never would have thought here in Amherst we would have two electric buses,” ACPS Superintendent William Wells said. “Here we are and moving forward hopefully we’ll have more than that.”

Hannah Dancey, a freshman at Amherst County High School, said she personally likes the experience of an electric bus.

“They run a lot smoother and I think it’s going to help the environment in the long run because it will help with less fumes in the air,” Dancey said.

Bus 16

Bus driver Bill Cox speaks with Caley Edgerly, president and CEO of Sonny Merriman, the dealership for the buses.

Falon Miller, a freshman at ACHS, also is a fan.

“It doesn’t make any loud noises like the old buses do,” Miller said. “Economically, it would help a lot. Personally, I really do like it. It’s a good bus.”

Amelon Elementary School fifth grader Ilia Coleman said louder speakers helps students better hear bus drivers when they give important instructions.

Driver Bill Cox said some features, such as the parking brake, work much better than in the diesel bus and the students seem to like it.

“It drives a little different, but you get used to it,” Cox said.

Bus 19

Shari Hammett keeps a daily log on charging the electric bus she drives for cost-tracking purposes. 

Air-conditioning on the two new buses also is much welcomed as drivers have to deal with extreme heat for parts of the year, he said.

Driver Shari Hammett said a major benefit of the electric bus is less noise that allows her to hear surroundings much better, which is crucial in transporting students.

“I’m old school, so I was a little intimidated at first because I wasn’t used to it,” Hammett said. “It’s quieter and you’re able to have better interactions with the kids safety-wise.”

Bus 21

One of Amherst schools' two new electric buses is parked at the transportation headquarters of Amherst County Public Schools. 

Amherst County School Board members Chris Terry, John Grieser and Priscilla Liggon attended the rollout and observe how they operate.

Grieser said in the early 20th century there was similar skepticism with embracing the first automobiles.

“It’s change,” Grieser said. “Like anything it takes some getting used to.”

With the first few buses in service and people seeing their benefit, including enhanced safety, better experiences for students and drivers and cleaner emissions, those tangible experiences will help them be sold, Grieser said.

“This is a good step forward.”

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