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Oakland Unified School District pioneers fully electric school bus fleet

Oakland, California – The Oakland Unified School District has recently shifted to a fully electric bus fleet, marking a significant improvement in air quality for its students. This change was highlighted in a Facebook announcement, revealing their collaboration with the electric bus company Zum. This move makes Oakland Unified the first school district in the U.S. to adopt an all-electric bus system. The Bay Area, where the district is located, is known for its poor air quality, ranking as the fifth-worst in the nation for particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association.

“The families of Oakland are disproportionately disadvantaged and affected by high rates of asthma and exposure to air pollution from diesel fuels,” said Kim Raney, Oakland Unified’s executive director of transportation. “Providing our students with cleaner and quieter transportation on electric school buses will be a game changer ensuring they have an equitable and stronger chance of success in the classroom.”

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The fleet includes 74 electric buses equipped with bidirectional chargers that contribute energy back to the power grid. The initiative aligns with California’s broader environmental goals. In October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law mandating all state school buses purchased or leased after 2035 to be zero-emission, although rural districts are granted more time to comply. The state supports these changes with grants and other incentives, covering some of the costs.

Over the past 20 years, California has invested approximately $1.2 billion to update its old diesel school buses. An additional $1.8 billion is planned to be spent in the next five years to further enhance the zero-emission bus fleets and related infrastructure. According to Zum, Oakland Unified’s switch to electric buses is expected to cut about 25,000 tons of greenhouse gases each year. These buses not only transport students but also serve as mobile power sources, adding around 2.1 gigawatt hours of energy to the grid annually by recharging overnight and operating during peak hours.

“Buses are the ideal energy resource in that they sit idle during the day and during peak power usage hours,” Jenny Mayfield, Zūm’s vice president of communications, said in an email. “Thus, they can discharge and power the grid at these times.”

Zum began its collaboration with the Oakland Unified School District in 2020, focusing on improving the transportation of over 1,300 students daily, including athletes and special needs children. Previously, these students were transported in traditional yellow diesel buses, often carrying only 15 or fewer students per trip. According to Zum, over 70% of these students spent more than an hour on the bus.

The introduction of Zum’s AI technology revolutionized these routes, significantly reducing travel times and the number of underutilized buses. Now, about 97% of students in Oakland spend less than an hour in transit, with half of the students completing their journeys in 20 minutes or less.

Zum, which is pronounced “zoom,” also utilizes an AI-enabled platform to monitor various aspects of bus operation, including operational needs, battery charge levels, and grid energy demands. This technology determines the optimal times to draw or return energy to the grid. According to Mayfield from Zum, most energy discharges from the buses back into the grid occur between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m., enhancing energy efficiency.

Ritu Narayan, founder and CEO of Zum, said the time had come to “move beyond pilots” and into larger-scale sustainability solutions.

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“Converting the Oakland Unified school bus fleet to 100 percent electric with VPP capability is the right step in that direction,” Narayan said in a statement. “This historic milestone is a win-win proposition: Electric school buses with V2G provide students with cleaner, fume-free transportation and allow us to send untapped energy from the bus batteries back to the grid, creating an enormous impact on grid resilience.”

Zum buses are also used in Los Angeles County, such as in Duarte Unified and in the Rosemead-based Garvey School District.

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