This article is from the May 5, 2021, issue of Flip the Script, a weekly newsletter moving you from climate stress to clean energy action. Sign up here to get it in your inbox (and share the link with a friend).
There’s so dang much happening in clean energy these days that it can be hard to keep up. Here’s one key trend that’s largely gone under the radar until now: electric school buses. Public health advocates have been promoting the benefits of these zero-emission kid transporters for a while, but only recently have both lawmakers and school districts jumped in on the action. Why? Electric school buses are a win-win for our children’s health and the climate—and much-needed investment from the government may soon actually happen.
In recent months, unprecedented federal funding opportunities have opened up to convert the nation’s 500,000 school buses to electric. At least three bills introduced in Congress this year—the Clean School Bus Act, the CLEAN Future Act, and the Clean Commute for Kids Act—call for billions of dollars to speed this transition over the coming decade. Aspects of these bills will likely be integrated in some form into the final version of President Biden’s newly unveiled $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan. The plan would make at least a fifth of the nation’s school bus fleet electric, covering the costs of both buying the buses and building charging stations.
School buses might seem like “small potatoes” compared to other clean energy issues, but they’re actually a big deal. More than half of all public school kids in the U.S.—nearly 25 million children on a typical school day—ride the bus to attend classes and events. School buses account for a whopping 90 percent of all buses in the country, so if we’re aiming to tackle the problem of rising greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (which we need to), then school buses are a key target. With almost all of these buses still running on dirty diesel fuel, there’s an electric revolution waiting to happen in the school parking lot.
Clean buses, healthier kids
Anyone who’s ever waited for the bus knows what it’s like to breathe in diesel fumes: they’re thick, choking, and clearly unhealthy. Studies have found that pollutant levels on diesel buses are 5 to 10 times higher than those in nearby areas, and there are strong associations between even low-level air pollution and deadly respiratory diseases. School children are at particular risk: breathing polluted air can lead to short-term struggles with cognitive tasks and focus, and over the longer term, diesel fumes can negatively affect brain development and overall academic performance.
In contrast to diesel, electric buses pollute far less, even if the electricity used to charge them comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. (In the future, of course, the buses would ideally be powered by solar and wind power.) One study found evidence that retrofitting school buses improves kids’ test scores. Electrifying school buses is also an important step in addressing climate change and economic inequities, since the areas with the highest air pollution levels are also often poorer communities and communities of color.
Lowering the sticker price
Despite the attractiveness of going electric, the main barrier for school districts has been economic. The upfront cost of an electric school bus is nearly three times that of a diesel bus. However, if the full life cycle of the bus is considered—from its purchase to decommissioning—electric buses are actually competitive with diesel buses, mainly because of the lower lifetime operating costs. Estimates put lifetime savings for each electric school bus in the tens of thousands of dollars when compared to a diesel bus—driven largely by reduced fuel costs and maintenance.
To get over the cost hurdle, school districts around the country are taking various approaches, from obtaining grants and using funds from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement —which usually enable districts to buy 1-2 electric buses at a time—to more creative tactics that lay the path for full-fleet electrification. California’s Twin Rivers Unified School District, one of the country’s first districts to start operating electric buses (in 2016), has used funding from the state’s emissions trading program to assemble the largest zero-emission school bus fleet in North America, with 40 total buses. The district plans to shift all 130 of its buses to electric in the next 2.5 years.
In contrast, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland is using a leasing arrangement to transition its fleet over the next 12 years. The county recently signed a four-year contract with a vendor to switch out 326 diesel buses (more than 20 percent of the total) with electric versions, paying a fixed rate that will cover the use of the new buses, plus all charging infrastructure and the electricity and maintenance costs. The vendor, meanwhile, is responsible for buying the buses upfront and aims to recoup at least some of its investment through savings on fuel and maintenance. (The project will also earn revenue by using the bus batteries to store energy, which can then be sold back to the grid.) “I am hoping this will be a model that opens doors for others that have the same reluctance that I did to say, ‘I can do this with existing funds,’” said Todd Watkins, the district’s transportation director.
A third district, Bethlehem Central School District in New York state, aims to fund its transition to all-electric by using money saved from reduced bus operations as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as obtaining at least $1 million in grants from the state. The grants and other funding would put the upfront cost of a new electric bus within $40,000 of the cost of a new diesel version, and bring down the total cost of ownership to within $800 of a diesel bus.
Federal action to amp things up
The economic calculus will only get easier if the funding proposals currently making the rounds in Washington end up becoming law. Pushing this legislation through Congress could be a struggle given the Democrats’ slim lead. But even if the scope of funding shrinks during negotiations, a significant chunk of change (possibly in the billions of dollars) will likely be available to support electric school bus purchases. Importantly, the proposed funding doesn’t just center on children’s health but also has a strong equity component, earmarking a share of the grantmaking to districts with high pollution risks.
With the current laser focus at the federal level, electric school buses could rapidly hit the mainstream, giving the industry the boost it needs to prove itself in the market, and leading to broader adoption of the buses for both city and private fleets. E-bus technology is advancing quickly: one bus recently set a record by driving more than 1,000 miles on a single charge, and a new fast-charging system being tested can “fuel” a bus fully in 10 minutes. As Senator Alex Padilla (CA) recently noted, shifting to zero-emission school buses isn’t just a smart market move, it’s “an essential aspect of building equitable, sustainable infrastructure and is a wise investment in our children, our environment and our future.”