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'A real-life magic school bus': Virginia's first electric school buses unveiled

The first electric school buses in the commonwealth will begin rolling down the road early next month, thanks to Dominion Energy’s Electric School Bus Program and Sonny Merryman, a Campbell County-based school and commercial bus company.

In a rollout celebration Tuesday, representatives from Sonny Merryman; Dominion Energy; Thomas Built Buses; Proterra, a California-based electric transit and charging manufacturer; and school divisions across the state had a first look at the state’s first electric school buses.

Fifty of these buses will be delivered to schools in Dominion Energy’s Virginia service area next month as part of phase one of the Dominion Energy Electric School Bus Program, which first was announced in August 2019.

Phase two, pending state approval, would bring at least 1,000 additional electric school buses to Virginia school divisions by 2025. Phase three aims to have 50% of all diesel bus replacements be electric by 2025 and 100% by 2030.

Dominion Energy serves areas across the state including Richmond, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Virginia Beach and areas in Campbell and Appomattox counties.

Dean Farmer, vice president of sales and marketing at Sonny Merryman, said these electric buses are “probably the biggest development in the North American pupil transportation industry since yellow paint.”

Dan Weekley, vice president of energy innovation policy and implementation at Dominion Energy, said the electric school bus program was created with a focus on student safety and the environment.

“At the end of the day, the No. 1 priority for these buses is safe pupil transportation,” Weekley said.

Powered by Proterra batteries, these 50 buses will prevent almost 3 million pounds of carbon emissions during their first year on the road, according to a news release from Sonny Merryman.

“It’s like a real-life magic school bus,” Farmer said.

Other benefits of the electric school buses when compared to traditional diesel buses include cleaner air quality inside the buses, enhanced safety, lower cost and less maintenance.

“We are so excited to be part of this transformational change in pupil transportation in the transition to zero-emission, environmentally-friendly electric school buses,” said Floyd Merryman, president and CEO of Sonny Merryman.

Tim Hoden, director of operations for Campbell County Public Schools, said the division hopes to be part of the next phase of the Dominion Energy Electric School Bus Program.

Hoden said just a few of the division’s schools are in Dominion Energy’s service area and would qualify for the electric buses. While the division won’t be able to get these specific electric buses for all of its schools, Hoden said administrators are eager to be a part of this movement.

“Not only is it better for the kids on the bus, it’s better for the overall world,” Hoden said.

Weekley said Dominion Energy received interest from school divisions across the commonwealth, with several asking if they could receive all 50 of the school buses in this first phase.

Sixteen localities in Virginia are receiving buses in this first phase, including the counties of Pittsylvania and Fairfax and the cities of Waynesboro and Alexandria.

Frank Rogers, Campbell County administrator, said the county contributed about $25,000 to support the installation of the bus charging stations at Sonny Merryman.

Weekley said school divisions will pay no more for these electric school buses than they currently pay for traditional diesel buses, as Dominion Energy will be offsetting the additional cost. Dominion Energy, he said, also will be installing charging stations and providing driving and maintenance training for drivers.

As far as operating costs, Weekley said, the electric buses will cost divisions less than half the cost of a diesel bus. On average, he said, Dominion Energy estimated division’s will save roughly $600 per month per bus.

“When you think about saving $7,000 a year per bus — that’s real money,” Weekley said.

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Education reporter

Cross covers K-12 and higher education for The News & Advance. An Asheboro, North Carolina native, Cross joined The News & Advance team in January 2020 after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism.

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