School & District Management

Electric Buses Hit Some Road Bumps, But They’re Still Catching On

By Mark Lieberman — February 26, 2024 8 min read
Yellow electric school bus plugged in at a charging station.
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The number of electric school buses on America’s roads is rising—and as with any substantial change to school district operations, there’s no shortage of growing pains.

Several school districts in West Virginia got less money to cover electric school bus costs than they expected from the federal government after an apparent difference of opinion over the rural nature of their locations. Republican state lawmakers in New York are pushing to roll back the state’s mandate for schools to electrify their bus fleets by 2035. And in Maine, the state education department has urged districts to take some electric buses out of service after mechanical problems arose.

From one view, these developments seem to illustrate setbacks in the broader effort to replace gas-guzzling, toxic-chemical-emitting school buses with cleaner, more energy-efficient alternatives.

But supporters of school bus electrification aren’t deterred.

“With any new technology there’s going to be hiccups in the rollout. School buses are so visible,” said Keith Dennis, president of the Beneficial Electrification League, a nonprofit organization that helps utility companies prioritize electrification initiatives. “And for whatever reason, there’s some polarization around anything that has to do with investments in things that could be related to climate, because some people don’t even agree on that.”

Electric school buses remain a distinct minority among vehicles transporting kids to school. Half a million school buses are currently on the roads across the nation. Of those, roughly 4,000 run on electricity, according to the Electric School Bus Initiative tracker from the World Resources Institute. Districts have already committed to purchasing or leasing another 4,600 that will appear in the coming years, the institute reports.

Still, the growth in electric bus adoption has sped up in recent months. During each of the first two rounds of applications for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program, school districts collectively sought roughly $1 billion in grants, more than double the available funding each time.

Six states have enacted binding measures that require some or all of the state’s school buses to be electric within the next 10 to 20 years. Eleven states also are requiring vehicle manufacturers to increase the proportion of their overall sales for low-emission vehicles like electric school buses, according to the World Resource Institute’s state electric school bus policy playbook, published this month. WRI is a global research nonprofit focused on sustainability and fighting climate change.

“It’s early days with a lot of the right ingredients in place that just need some time on the stove,” said Sue Gander, director of the group’s Electric School Bus Initiative.

Getting funding support isn’t always straightforward

Some districts have been wary of investing in electric buses because they cost more upfront than traditional diesel-powered school buses. Districts will eventually realize cost savings by minimizing fuel costs, but those may take years to materialize.

All told, more than $9 billion in state and federal funding is available for school districts looking to electrify their buses, according to the WRI. But getting enough money isn’t always easy.

Jim Lopez, the assistant superintendent for transportation for the Harrison County school district in West Virginia, decided to seek federal subsidies to kick off his district’s investment in electric buses. The EPA granted priority consideration for its electric bus grants and rebates to hundreds of low-income and rural districts, allowing them to receive a larger grant than districts outside the priority category.

The EPA didn’t extend that option to the Harrison County schools, but Lopez’s team applied to self-certify as a priority district. In early January, he heard good news—the EPA had approved his request and was planning to provide a $5,000-per-bus grant.

But a few days later, he got different news: the EPA had made an error, and the district was no longer deemed priority.

With the help of the office of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, Lopez and his colleagues in two other districts that experienced the same fate made the case to the EPA to reconsider. But so far, the agency hasn’t.

Now Lopez has a tough choice to make. The district’s margins are tight, and shouldering an unexpected cost could be troublesome.

On the other hand, the state of West Virginia provides districts with annual transportation funding based on its calculation of the value of their fleets, meaning a district with a partially electric fleet would be eligible for additional state funds.

“The electric school buses are worth three times what a normal school bus would be,” Lopez said. “We had just hoped to delve into the electric school buses for a reasonable price.”

Worries emerge about rushing the transition

New York was one of the first states to pass a law requiring school districts to convert their entire school bus fleets to run on electricity by 2035. Starting in 2027, districts will be prohibited from buying buses that run on diesel or anything other than electricity.

A group of Republican state lawmakers have recently pushed back against this law, however. They, along with groups representing some rural schools in the state, argue that the state should prioritize electrifying buses run by other agencies, such as public transit authorities, before requiring school districts to foot the bill for these costs. They’ve also questioned the efficacy of electric school buses for safely and efficiently transporting students.

Under the lawmakers’ proposed legislation, the electric school bus rollout would be delayed until 2045.

The debate has come up at a time when many of the state’s school districts, particularly rural ones, are bemoaning a drop in state aid that Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has said is prudent following the infusion of federal money districts received during the pandemic.

Similar policies in other states have seen far less backlash, Gander said, so she’s not concerned about broader pushback to policies like New York’s. Plus, New York’s voters backed the electric bus transition when 67 percent of them approved a $4.2 billion statewide bond in November 2022 that includes $500 million for electric school buses.

“It just seems kind of opportunistic for a handful of politicians to try to make this be something that it’s not,” Gander said.

Mechanical problems may be inevitable

Electric school buses will also become de rigueur in Maine in the coming years. Three-quarters of the state’s buses must be electric by 2035, per state law.

But several districts in the state have recently reported significant mechanical issues with newly purchased electric buses manufactured by Lion. One bus driver recently veered into a snowbank after the power steering system on his electric bus failed, the Kennebec Journal reported.

Other Maine districts have reported issues with inaccurate wording, loose or malfunctioning parts, and leaking windshields, media outlets have reported in recent weeks. It’s not clear whether the problems stemmed from the fact that the buses run on electricity or from some other factor.

The company plans to conduct an inspection of all the malfunctioning buses and continue working with affected Maine districts even after they’re back on the road, said Nate Baguio, Lion’s senior vice president of commercial development.

Lion has manufactured 1,600 electric school buses that are operating in many states, Baguio said.

“It is different in an industry that largely hasn’t changed in 70 years,” he said. But malfunctions aren’t only an issue with electric buses: “If you go to any school bus yard in the country, the diesel vehicles will have service issues, too.”

Some concerns about electric bus operations include the stamina of their battery life in cold weather and traverse long distances in rural areas without needing to be recharged.

These are legitimate issues, and the Maine situation warrants additional scrutiny of electric bus manufacturers’ practices, Dennis said. Lion is among a slew of companies that are new to producing electric school buses.

“I don’t think it means that electric buses can’t or don’t work, I think it means that the manufacturer screwed up,” Dennis said. “I don’t think that’s good for them. That doesn’t mean electric cars can’t have brakes that work.”

The performance of electric buses in one place doesn’t inherently mirror the experience in other places. School officials recently told Montana Public Radio that their electric buses have been operating just fine in temperatures dozens of degrees below zero.

Despite the concerns, demand for electric buses and development of the infrastructure to support them are continuing to grow.

Dozens of school board members and local government leaders recently urged Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat, to emulate other states’ mandates and funding for electric school bus transitions. And school districts are among the beneficiaries of a recently announced $1.9 billion investment from the California Energy Commission in electric vehicle charging systems.

Gander said she’s looking for ways to spotlight success stories of electric buses to help others who aren’t as far along. Districts might have to adjust their route timing so buses have adequate time to recharge between trips, and train drivers on how to operate electric buses. But it’s possible to achieve those things, she said.

“I think it’s really about telling the stories and acknowledging, hey, this is different than what you’re used to,” she said.

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