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Plugged In: Grid Capacity Evaluation for K-12 School Districts Going Electric

Amid a growing awareness of the advantages of clean energy, ongoing advancements in electric bus technology, and the availability of $100 million in federal funding for implementation of the New York School Bus Incentive Program, electric school buses are emerging as a priority project for K-12 school districts. A critical driver of this transition is the New York State Legislature’s mandate for all new bus purchases to be zero-emission starting in 2027, and a 2035 deadline for conversion of total fleets.

Powering electric school buses throughout the state will require not only an extensive charging and energy storage infrastructure at each bus garage, but also substantial modifications to the grid itself. Despite its extensive reach—more than 9,200 electric generating units connected to more than 600,000 miles of transmission lines—the U.S. electric grid is aging and inadequately equipped to handle the additional load expected from widespread electrification. Some components of the grid are well over a century old—well beyond their 50-year life expectancy—while others are well into the second half of their lifespans. Infrastructure upgrades are imperative to meet future demands.

A major consideration for any school district planning electrification projects is how to account for grid modifications that may be required to support the increased electrical demand. When will your school district know if grid capacity is an issue for your transition to electric buses? Without a grid capacity evaluation, the answer might be “too late in the planning process.”

What Is a Grid Capacity Evaluation?

A grid capacity evaluation is used to determine if a designated site (i.e., a district bus storage facility) has enough capacity to support a proposed project (i.e. installing electric charging stations and energy storage systems). This evaluation entails analyzing existing infrastructure to gauge if the current distribution grid can accommodate the anticipated load for the project and proposing potential grid improvements that may be required.

Using publicly available information, the anticipated project load is compared with the existing capacity of the distribution lines near the project site. On-site observation and verification of existing data results in complete assessment of the need for grid upgrades. The final deliverable of this process is a detailed report containing a conceptual-level review and evaluation of the existing electric distribution system in and around the project site, insights into required grid improvements, and estimated costs for implementing them. Once loads are obtained, the entire grid capacity evaluation process can take anywhere between three to five weeks to complete, pending a site visit.

Overall, the goal of a grid capacity evaluation is to provide clients with this information early in the project development phase, enabling them to make informed financial decisions related to the viability of their projects. This proactive approach allows clients to plan ahead, avoiding unexpected costs and delays later in the project life cycle and ensuring that their electrification objectives can be achieved within budget constraints.

The Power Struggle: Electrification vs. Grid Capacity

With roughly 50,000 school buses across New York State, there are several challenges for school districts to consider when planning for a conversion to electric buses. Knowing what electrical service your district will need is only the beginning of the project planning. It will also be important for your district to know ahead of time if the existing electrical grid will need to be modified to support the heightened demand from your future electric bus fleet, and to account for funding if it does.

Providing enough electricity to power a fleet of electric buses and their charging stations is the most challenging technical hurdle to implementing a fleet of electric buses. Not only will your district’s transportation facility electrical service require replacement or a separate service, but there may also be significant modifications needed on the part of the utility company to provide the amount of electricity needed to power your district’s fleet. The utility company may not be able to provide this quantity of power without upgrades to substations or providing power distribution from a different source altogether, if available. For example, a new line may need to be run back to the nearest substation, which may also have to be upgraded to accommodate the additional load.

School districts will need to conduct their own due diligence to determine grid capacity for their future fleet of electric buses that will place a load on the existing system. Hiring an engineering firm that has the expertise to conduct a grid capacity evaluation can play a crucial role in this process, as this evaluation involves assessing both the electrical capacity of the site and the capacity of the local electric utility, as well as experienced estimating and scheduling for work of this scope.

Having this information early in the project development phase allows districts and utilities to plan effectively for funding and infrastructure requirements, ensuring a smoother transition to electric buses while minimizing disruptions and delays.

Charging Ahead: Planning Today for Tomorrow’s Demand

As school districts across New York State embrace the mandate for electric bus fleets, the importance of grid capacity evaluation cannot be overstated. The current electric grid does not contain the elements necessary to support the increased demand from the forthcoming fleet of electric buses, and this type of evaluation is a critical first step in creating a resilient and reliable electric grid. Without a grid capacity evaluation, districts risk encountering obstacles late in the planning process, potentially derailing their electrification initiatives.

School districts can benefit from partnering with an engineering firm that can serve as a skilled intermediary and facilitate communication with local utility companies, ensuring seamless coordination and proactive planning. Early outreach from the district, in partnership with an engineering firm, to a local utility company is strongly recommended to navigate potential utility costs and facilitate cooperative design efforts.

Leveraging our extensive combined experience in K-12 education and utility work, LaBella is uniquely positioned to guide your school district through the intricacies of grid capacity evaluation and prepare you to power your electric bus fleets effectively.

About the Author
Anthony Sanganetti, PE
Program Manager – Transmission & Distribution

As Program Manager of Transmission & Distribution, Anthony’s design expertise covers numerous electrical transmission and distribution projects—both overhead and underground, including experience working on 11kV through 115kV and substation projects. He has led projects in renewables, solar, permitting, and compliance, and has worked as the design lead for the routing and design of collector lines for 94-c projects, including the interconnection design and related studies.