School & District Management

Schools Can Access Tons of Money for Electric Buses. Will They Use It?

By Mark Lieberman — June 16, 2022 5 min read
Stockton Unified School District's new electric bus fleet reduces over 120,000 pounds of carbon emissions and leverages The Mobility House's smart charging and energy management system.
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Electric buses are becoming more appealing and affordable for school districts as the effects of climate change become more visible and the cost of traditional fuel soars to unprecedented levels. But even as the federal government and states dangle hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives, some districts remain wary of investing in the still-emerging technology—or unaware of the potential benefits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month opened applications for rebates totaling $250 million for school districts to replace existing diesel school buses with electric buses, as well as another $250 million for zero-emission alternatives like propane and compressed natural gas. Another $4.5 billion in Clean School Bus Program rebates will roll out over the next four years.

Some districts are jumping at the chance. In Salt Lake City, administrators hope to buy 25 more electric buses to complement the eight they already have, in a fleet of roughly 100.

But half of the 384 district leaders who answered a nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey last month said they didn’t know about the rebate program until reading the survey question.

And the responses suggest electric bus proponents have more work to do than just providing the funds. Only 22 percent of district leaders said they’re likely to apply for the EPA rebates. One-third said they had no idea whether they would.

A task for proponents: overcoming skepticism

The agency is prioritizing applications from districts with more than a fifth of their students living in poverty, as well as rural and tribal districts. A full list of more than 7,500 districts eligible for priority consideration is on the EPA website.

But administrators at a few districts on that list contacted by Education Week still said they don’t plan to apply.

Several said they’re concerned about the costs associated with setting up electric school bus infrastructure, like charging stations and training for drivers and mechanics. Electric buses currently cost roughly double the sticker price of traditional diesel buses, though proponents argue the long-term cost savings offset the initial investment.

Another common concern: logistics.

Tesi Solis, transportation director of the Northside district in San Antonio, Texas, has identified one particular bus depot as the best fit for a potential electric bus, because the buses there primarily travel short routes to transport urban students. But the lot is so crowded that there’s no room to install charging stations. “We almost need another row in the lot,” Solis said.

Even priority districts that do plan to apply aren’t sure electric buses will be a game-changer.

“Our biggest problem right now is finding bus drivers to drive the buses we already have,” said Wayne Tilley, business official and district treasurer for the Unadilla Valley district in upstate New York.

Tilley owns an electric car and isn’t opposed to the concept. But figuring out how far electric buses can travel without being charged, how long charging takes, and how much the buses and charging stations will cost is a daunting set of tasks for a district that canceled after-school activities one week last month because four bus drivers were out sick and no one was available to cover for them.

Strong evidence electric buses can be valuable for students and the environment

Research shows that electric school buses, which are quieter and emit fewer unpleasant odors than diesel buses, improve students’ health and academic performance, and emit less than half as many greenhouse gases as diesel buses do.

More electric buses could also be helpful for increasing renewable energy adoption more broadly. A report last month from the Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group argues that converting every school bus in the nation to electric could supplement power grids during emergencies and provide relief to homes and businesses during power surges.

The first electric school bus in the U.S. hit the road in 2014 in California’s Kings Canyon district. Eight years later, schools either operate, have purchased, or have received funds to purchase more than 12,000 buses across 400 districts in 38 states. That figure represents between 2 percent and 3 percent of the nation’s half-million school buses, according to data from the World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative.

Roughly 600 of those “committed” buses are already on the road. Many more are likely to begin driving soon; it can take 16 months from purchase to delivery, the institute reports.

Some states, including Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, and New Mexico, have funded electric buses with money from the settlement of a lawsuit that alleged Volkswagen equipped hundreds of thousands of vehicles with devices that obscured subpar results on emission tests.

Districts that have already begun the transition to electric buses have been pleased with them despite some hiccups.

In Michigan, seven districts have participated in a pilot program that’s added 17 electric school buses over the last four years. Volkswagen settlement funds covered $4.2 million, or up to 70 percent, of the purchase price for the buses, and districts covered the remainder with local funds.

The buses have largely run smoothly, even in snowy, hilly Gaylord, Mich., said Mac Dashney, who launched the program while he served as executive director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation.

The electric buses have a learning curve, but it can be overcome, said Dashney, who currently runs a consulting company, the Pupil Transportation Operation and Management Institute. One district saw that a battery stopped working in one of its buses and put that bus out of service. A few weeks later, during a monthly meeting of electric bus technicians, another district shared that the buses run just fine on three batteries even if the remaining fourth one isn’t working.

The buses have handled long routes with ease, Dashney said. “Our district that has 278 square miles has two buses, they both run on routes that have 110 miles each day,” Dashney said. “There’s no problem on a single charge.”

Electric buses will become more prevalent, but hurdles remain

The EPA rebate program, funded by the bipartisan infrastructure package President Joe Biden signed into law last year, appears poised to significantly expand the number of electric buses. New York state has committed to electrifying all of its school buses by 2035; Boston, by 2030.

Some states are chipping in as well. Colorado’s governor signed a bill this month for $65 million in grants for school districts to buy electric buses. A similar bill for $45 million over the next three years is making its way through the New Jersey legislature. A pilot program in West Virginia will help school districts apply for federal grants, following the opening earlier this year of an electric school bus factory in the state.

Resources also are available aimed at promoting the program and converting skeptics. Among them: a tool that estimates the total cost of ownership for an electric vehicle and testimonials from districts that have successfully added electric buses.

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