Imagine how children go to school. An early morning group with backpacks, sports equipment and lunch boxes waits at the side of the road as the big yellow school bus pulls up with a loud roar.
But in school districts across the country, the sound of the bus increasingly resembles the artificial hum of an electric vehicle. This shift is being driven by the federal government, which is spending billions of dollars to help counties purchase electric buses.
Many of these new, quieter, cleaner school buses are being built in Georgia by the 95-year-old Macon-based Blue Bird Corporation.
Blue Bird’s first school bus was a body mounted on a Ford Model-T chassis. Now more than 1,000 people work at the manufacturing facility in the nearby town of Fort Valley, central Georgia, building all types of school buses from scratch.
The first Blue Bird school bus, built almost a century ago, was mounted on a Ford Model-T chassis. More than 1,000 people now work at the production plant in Georgia. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)
Antonio Bryant, who has worked at Blue Bird for 12 years, switched to the EV side about four years ago and now trains others on how to build the electric buses.
“Pretty much everyone that comes through here, I’ll help train them a little bit,” he said as workers connected the battery to an electric bus under construction.
Bryant said working on the electric buses is very different, but he finds it exciting. And he is proud to be involved in building the new buses.
“I love it,” he said.
Electric buses are increasingly the focus of the company, which manufactured its first demonstration electric vehicle for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
Commercial sales began in 2018, when California communities — often the first to drive cleaner transportation initiatives — received funds for the purchase.
Tomario Butts, frontline leader of electric vehicle production, has been with the company for ten years and switched to the electric side last year. “That’s the direction the world is going,” he said. “It’s a cleaner bus.” (Matthew Pearson/WABE)
About 6% of Blue Bird’s volume is now electric. Britton Smith, the company’s senior vice president of electrification and chief strategy officer, said he expects that share to increase significantly.
“The dynamic has changed,” he said.
This is thanks to public funds dedicated to tackling climate change and air pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is distributing $5 billion to school districts to buy low- and zero-emission buses.
The money comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law passed a few years ago.
Smith said he expects Blue Bird to sell about $1 billion worth of electric school buses over the five years of the federal program.
The company has a grants team that supports school districts that might not otherwise have the expertise or time to apply for grants and other incentives for the new buses.
Orders from school districts are already coming in.
“The interesting thing is that we’re seeing orders from states that you wouldn’t expect,” Smith said.
“It’s really adding momentum in states that haven’t historically been interested in electric vehicles.”
Smith said Blue Bird is already moving away from diesel, its most popular powertrain. Diesel now accounts for less than half of the company’s volume. The rest is propane, natural gas, and growing electricity production.
Blue Bird currently has the capacity to produce four electric buses per day, but the company is building a facility that aims to build up to 20 electric buses per day by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, workers at the company recently voted to form a union, demanding better pay, work-life balance and safer working conditions.
“The idea is to make sure Blue Bird wins and gets better, including the workers,” said Maria Somma, United Steelworkers organizing director.
She said employees contacted their union before federal incentives for electric vehicles began. Now that the company is benefiting from this funding, it is only fair that the workers are benefiting as well.
“You really deserve to have a say in saving the planet,” she said. “You all have a legitimate interest in it. We all do that.”
Earlier this month, Blue Bird workers voted to join the United Steelworkers. They say they want safer working conditions and better pay. And union officials say the company should benefit from government support for electric vehicles, but it’s also for workers. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)
The pandemic has been a challenge for Blue Bird. Mike Shlisky, a senior equity research analyst at DA Davidson covering the EV sector, said it was a “downturn” for the school bus market as a whole.
The company has also had supply chain problems and last year saw layoffs.
But Shlisky said he thinks things are looking up.
Blue Bird has set itself apart from the competition when it comes to electric buses. According to Shlisky, Blue Bird’s market share of the overall school bus industry is approximately 30%. However, if you look at the purely electric variant, he estimates that it is higher.
And in the electric vehicle sector as a whole, there’s evidence that the company is selling as many electric vehicles as it does while operating profitably, he said.
Georgia is working to attract more companies from the electric vehicle industry as the sector grows. Amid company announcements about opening offices in the state, Blue Bird workers say they’ve been here all along. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)
“There’s a lot of flash and a lot of new companies that no one’s heard of before and a lot of fundraising and stuff like that, but the company that’s actually doing as well as, if not better than, everyone else is Blue.” Bird,” Shlisky said.
That’s also a point Blue Bird employees bring up — when they see the electric truck commercials on TV, or people talking about Teslas, or the big announcements about new EV plants in Georgia, they say that they are also part of this electric revolution.
“We’re here and we’ve been,” said Greg Thompson, order control manager at the Blue Bird facility.
And Blue Bird EV trainer Bryant said he could see his prowess on the streets.
He said his father, who works in a rural Georgia school system, recently told him his district is getting a Blue Bird electric bus.
“It made me think, ‘Hey, I’m doing this so my hometown can have one that I actually built,'” Bryant said. “That’s kinda cool.”