Lion Electric’s Nate Baguio prescribes fleets of clean, modern, zero-emission school buses to restore student transportation infrastructure to good health.
As a journalism major at Cal State Sacramento in 1990, Nate Baguio was focused on becoming the next great foreign news correspondent. To make ends meet, however, he was also driving a school bus part-time for the local Ryder Student Transportation office.
"I was there in the bus yard every morning and every afternoon with 300 diesel-powered buses starting up all at once,” Baguio recalls. “I had to inhale all that dirty air, as did our mechanics and my fellow bus drivers. I knew there had to be a better way.”
Over the next 30 years, he would seek out this “better way” by investing time in learning the history of US transportation infrastructure, developing new ways to communicate with transportation stakeholders, and encouraging them to think in new ways about how best to move people and goods. Along the way, he has become an evangelist, of sorts, for purpose-built, all-electric transportation systems.
Promoting a New Approach
Today, as the senior vice president of commercial development for The Lion Electric Company, Saint-Jérôme, Quebec, Canada, Los Angeles-based Baguio crisscrosses North America preaching the gospel and benefits of all-electric urban vehicles, including heavy trucks and school buses.
“For the last 100 years, transportation of people and goods has essentially been done one way – put fossil fuel in a vehicle and move it from point A to point B,” he notes. “As a result, we have a very polluted planet that is suffering the ravages of climate change.”
Electric school buses can help change that paradigm; he believes. Compared to fossil fuel vehicles, they offer:
Zero emissions, which make them a cleaner, healthier transportation option for students and the communities they live in;
Lower fuel and maintenance costs;
Quieter operation; and
Reduced carbon footprint, which can fortify local school district sustainability programs.
Putting Education First
Baguio was born in Salinas, Calif., a farming community of about 162,000 about 30 miles from Monterrey Bay. The son of a probation officer and a school district employee, he grew up in a hard-working blue-collar household where education was always a family priority.
“Salinas was kind of a rough town,” he admits, “with lots of opportunities for kids to go off the rails.”
Against this backdrop, Baguio’s sports-enthusiast father enrolled him in tennis lessons at the local community courts. At first, it was just something Baguio did for fun––and surprisingly well. But it also became a way out.
When Baguio entered high school, the school’s tennis coach––and friend of his parents––noticed that Baguio was hanging out with the “wrong” group of kids. The coach “encouraged” Baguio, in no uncertain terms, to go out for the tennis team.
Finding His Voice
Baguio would go on to become the top tennis player in his high school, and captain of the tennis team his senior year. He credits sports not only with giving him new direction and making him a better student but also with making college a realistic goal.
At Hartnell College in Salinas, Baguio continued playing tennis but also discovered new ways to connect with people.
“Taking classes in photography, public speaking, and creative writing helped me find a voice through other media,” he recalls. “It stirred something inside me to learn that there are different ways to communicate effectively with other people.”
After graduating Hartnell, Baguio continued studying communications media at Cal State Sacramento. As a senior, however, he encountered a life-changing fork in his academic road.
“I was offered a job at the Vacaville Reporter as a photographer, and they were also going to let me do some writing,” he explains. “But at exactly the same time, I was offered an opportunity to become the manager of the Ryder bus yard where I was working, in part because I was apparently the only person who also understood this new technology called the (desktop) computer.”
Baguio put his studies on hold and jumped on the corporate Ryder bus. The new job—it came with a company car, a pager and a healthy paycheck—not only promoted him from bus driver to team leader but also gave him the opportunity to manage people—most of them many years his senior—and profit and loss statements.
Learning the Bus Business
For the next decade, Baguio played a central role in Ryder Student Transportation’s contracted bus operations in California. He ended up running school bus yards—and all of the related business operations—in Sacramento and Orange County, Calif., and eventually one that served the Los Angeles Unified School District. At age 27, he was managing close to 300 employees.
"It was a great way for a liberal arts student to learn something completely new on the business side,” Baguio suggests. “It definitely helped set me up for what I’m doing now, which requires not only good communication and leadership skills, but also understanding how a business works and how to make it run successfully.”
Over and Back
In 2005, Baguio learned of an opportunity in business development at First Student, the largest provider of student bus services in North America. His knowledge of the school bus industry and public affairs experience made him a perfect match for the job.
While working for First Student, he also made time to complete his undergraduate studies, earning a bachelor’s degree in Communications and Media Studies from Arizona State University.
In 2011, while attending a transportation industry trade show, Baguio encountered his first electric school bus, a prototype of Lion Electric CEO Mark Bedard’s electric Type C bus. On a whim, he asked Lion’s trade show team if he could drive the bus. To his surprise, they said yes.
“After the show closed, I drove the electric bus around a nearby parking lot, and that was the big moment,” Baguio remembers. “It was smooth and quiet, not at all what I was expecting. I stepped off the bus thinking ‘This is better.’”
Eventually, Baguio parlayed that epiphany and additional electric bus research into a dinner meeting with Bedard at the next STN-EXPO, a school bus conference and trade show, in Reno, Nev. A more formal interview at the company’s headquarters in Canada and a job offer soon followed. He will celebrate five years with Lion Electric in March 2023.
Easing Anxieties, Managing Change
Today, Baguio focuses on helping people experience electric bus technology the same way he did … by riding a bus, hearing and seeing the difference, and stepping off the bus saying “this is better.”
The biggest challenge, he admits, is change.
“The yellow school bus has been iconic and largely unchanged for many years,” Baguio observes. It’s difficult to get people to do things a completely different way.”
Baguio works closely—usually face to face—with school districts to help them square the reality that electric school buses cost more initially (at a time when school budgets are under pressure) with the future benefits of cleaner air, healthier students, reduced fuel costs and lower maintenance costs. He also helps them resolve recurring “range anxiety.”
“Lion Electric has made its electric bus technology modular,” he explains. “If a school district is running 20 to 30 miles per day per route, it doesn’t need to purchase a more expensive five-battery pack bus with a 155-mile range.”
Baguio’s work includes helping school districts match bus capacity and range with their requirements (and budget.) Lion Electric also offers its customers assistance in identifying grants that can help pay not only for the buses themselves, but also for charging infrastructure, retraining drivers and mechanics, and retraining managers now responsible for managing their budget around the needs and requirements of electric vehicles.
Just the Same, but Better
To first order, notes Baguio, Lion Electric buses look just like iconic yellow school buses. They feature mustard-yellow, fade-resistant, leak-proof composite bodies; TKO plastic around their skirting (for easy repairs), wider aisles, and even integrated trash can holders. They are also programmable, which allows school districts to charge buses when electricity rates are lowest.
“Our buses are so quiet that we had to put a little speaker on board to make noise,” he says. “When the driver’s slowing down to 10 miles per hour, it plays a little song so that kids will look up to see the bus coming.”
Which is one more reason why Baguio is encouraged by the growing U.S. demand for electric school buses. Lion Electric school buses have been on the road since 2016.
At first, he observes, many districts stood up pilot programs to try out this new type of bus. Increasingly, however, districts nationwide are making commitments to convert their entire bus fleets to electric, typically over spans of four to five years. The longer deployment schedule affords time to install additional charging infrastructure and complete any required retraining of drivers and mechanics.
School districts are also benefiting, Baguio adds, from EPA-administered grants for clean school buses stemming from the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill signed into law in Nov. 2021.
To help meet this demand, Lion Electric is standing up a new 900,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Joliet, Ill. The factory, which produced its first zero-emission school bus in Nov. 2022, is expected to have a production capacity of 20,000 electric buses and trucks per year.
Quieting the Critics, Delivering the Future
For Baguio, the outlook for electric school buses (and the communities they serve) is promising, if not downright bright. Acceptance rates are continuing to rise, manufacturing costs are continuing to decline, and more and more students are getting on and off school buses in clean, healthy air. He knows that he is at least partially responsible for this trend.
“If you speak the language of a certain industry, it helps other people—bus drivers, mechanics, transportation managers, parents, superintendents—get over something culturally,” he advises. “When they recognize that I’ve lived in their world and understand, firsthand, their concerns and what they’re going to like about electric school buses, they’re much more likely to ride with me on that bus, get off and say, ‘Yeah, this is better.’”
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If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also enjoy my profile on Dale Hill, founder and chairman emeritus of Proterra Inc., a leading U.S. developer and manufacturer of zero-emission, battery-electric transit vehicles. If you have suggestions for other profiles or infrastructure topics you'd like to see me cover in this blog, please send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org Many thanks.