Silicon Valley companies plan to turn school buses into 1GW virtual power plant

Two Californian tech companies have joined forces to take forward a plan to deploy 10,000 electric school buses over the next four years. As well as transporting students, the buses will act as a 1GW "virtual power plant" to supply energy to the state’s grid.

The companies are software house AutoGrid and ride hailing app ZÅ«m, both based in Redwood City on San Francisco bay.
Rahul Kar, general manager of New Energy at AutoGrid, commented in a press statement: "School buses have predictable daily schedules and are typically used only a few hours each day, making them an ideal resource as part of a virtual power plant.

"Virtual power plants play a crucial role in providing stability to a renewable-powered grid and the extra revenues from these grid services enable school districts and electric vehicle (EV) fleet owners to reduce the total cost of ownership as they strive to meet their sustainability goals."

The plan may take advantage of the Biden Administration’s proposed $25bn investment in the electrification of school buses as part of its infrastructure bill. At present, some 500,000 yellow buses transport over 27 million students a day. According to the companies, the electrification of a school bus saves 11 tons of carbon emissions per year.

ZÅ«m currently works with more than 4,000 schools in the San Francisco area to offer optimised routes and vehicles. The company says this has resulted in the number of students in the district spending an hour or more to and from school to drop from 70% to 3%.

Vivek Garg, president of ZÅ«m, said: "We’re committed to making it easy for districts to evolve their fleets to 100% electric through a combination of technology and innovation. Beyond that, we are taking vehicles that have traditionally spent the majority of their lifetime stalled or parked and expanding their use in multiple ways – from leveraging them for trips beyond home-to-school routes to optimizing the electric grid."

AutoGrid manages more than 5GW of "distributed energy" resources in 12 countries. It argues that utilising the batteries of school EV fleets has the potential to make a significant contribution to cleaning up the electricity grid in North America.

At present, when electricity demand rises in California, some 17GW of energy is generated from fossil fuel plants, many located in dense urban areas. The school bus VPP would offer an alternative to this system at less cost to the consumer and the environment.

Image: A mobile power station (Bill McChesney/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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