It’s Time to Start Paying Attention to Electric School Buses

Written by Joey Sausville · January 24, 2024
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It’s well documented that transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gases in California. As the state’s largest mass transportation system, school buses are a major contributor to our transportation emissions. In addition, they produce exhaust fumes shown to be profoundly harmful to young students. Exhaust is a carcinogenic substance that aggravates asthma and lung disease, and studies show that exposure to fumes impairs brain development and even worsens students’ performance in school. The American Lung Association published this video urging school districts to transition away from exhaust-emitting diesel-powered buses. With the beginning of the school year just around the corner, these concerns are top of mind for many parents and students at public schools.

photo credit: robert couse on pxhere

The harmful side effects of diesel-powered school buses also highlight issues of health and environmental inequity, as studies show that disadvantaged communities bear a disproportionate share of these harms. For example, students from low-income households and students with disabilities are more likely to take buses to school. Black students also ride buses for longer distances on average, exposing them to more pollution.

Going Electric

In the face of these and other challenges associated with fossil fuel buses, California schools are leading the charge to replace diesel-powered legacy vehicles with clean electric buses. In September of 2019, Milpitas Unified School District became the first district to use electric buses in the Bay Area. Quiet, efficient, with the same big yellow visage, electric buses eliminate exhaust fumes and produce about half the carbon dioxide per mile. (This varies slightly by region.) In 2016, there were only 10 electric school buses awarded, ordered, or in circulation across the US, according to the World Resources Institute. By December 2022, the number had grown to 5,612 buses across all 50 states, with 33% in California. 

Increased demand and favorable policy programs have resulted in the three biggest bus manufacturers — Blue Bird, Thomas Built Buses, and Navistar — beginning to produce electric buses.

photo credit: linda hutchins-knowles. photo is from an electric bus on display at the 2022 green footprint festival, pittsburg ca

 

Challenges Remain 

But bus electrification remains a complex challenge for school leaders, many of whom feel more inclined to experiment by purchasing one or two electric vehicles, if any. They are understandably daunted by steep upfront costs, as well as extensive operations and human capital challenges associated with maintenance and charging infrastructure. When reached for comment, Palo Alto Unified School District Dispatcher Andrew Ramirez spoke about some of the challenges they face with buying electric buses. PAUSD has invested in two electric buses so far, but it’s not clear when they will be able to move forward with more fleet electrification given various obstacles. For example, finding space to install charging stations can be a challenge, along with routing, scheduling, and vehicle range considerations. According to Ramirez, “To purchase more, there are many other things we must consider, like infrastructure, having the room to add more stations for the smaller buses or white fleet, having the right training and tools for your mechanics. It’s not just buy and the bus rolls, there’s a lot behind the scene to consider.” Even for a relatively progressive and resourced school district, the barriers are significant.

While electric buses help districts save on maintenance (e.g no oil changes, longer lasting brakes) and energy costs, upfront payments of $350,000 to $450,000 for new vehicles are a hurdle. This amounts to more than double the price of a diesel bus, not including charging infrastructure costs. Unfortunately, these financial constraints mean that communities most impacted by the negative health effects of electric buses are least equipped for electrification projects.

Funding for Electrification 

Fortunately, many districts are finding ways to finance projects with the help of plentiful government programs and incentives. The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program plans to spend $5 billion on low and zero-emission school buses before 2026, and has allocated over $900 million to fund buses so far. The Inflation Reduction Act promises to add to these funds through tax credits for electric heavy duty vehicles. At the state level, California has invested $1.5 billion in zero-emission school buses, according to Steven Cliff, California Air Resources Board (CARB) executive officer. In July, the Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) project began accepting applications for the Electric Vehicle Jump Start Funding Lane grant, which covers $750,000 for vehicles, equipment, and software. Eligible applicants include schools in disadvantaged or low-income communities, minority-owned businesses, transit fleets, and other medium and heavy-duty vehicle fleets in disadvantaged or low-income communities. The grants represent an important step towards addressing the inequity faced by school districts and communities that face systemic disadvantages. They also indicate a general trend towards more available government funding from the federal down to the local level.

In addition to more available public funding, private contractors are accelerating progress for school districts in the Bay Area and around the country. These vendors commonly handle several or all aspects of fleet electrification. Services can include bus purchases, infrastructure, driver training, software, and maintenance. In 2021, San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts contracted with transportation startup Züm to undertake large-scale projects to transition significant portions of their fleets. Züm’s contract with SFUSD includes the goal of electrifying its entire fleet by 2025.

photo by damian carr on unsplash

Could a combination of grants, incentives, and private solutions make electric fleets financially viable on a grander scale? So far, the answer varies case by case. Boston Public Schools oversaw a 20-bus replacement project under the leadership of prominent EV advocate Mayor Michelle Wu with considerable results. The district reports that the buses save 35 cents per mile, which could amount to a significant windfall over time. In an article by TechCrunch, a Züm spokesperson said they expected to save San Francisco Unified $3 million per year on average through operations solutions. Despite these impressive outcomes, these kinds of large-scale fleet transformations are exceptions, not the rule. Currently, most schools are opting for a “wait and see” approach, or replacing a few legacy buses initially.

Analysts predict the market will shift to a more favorable price point over time with further innovation, cheaper batteries, and economies of scale. Many believe these changes will eventually reduce the lifetime cost of electric buses to that of legacy diesel vehicles, possibly by 2030. Future price drops are another reason schools with greater financial constraints are electing to wait to invest in electric buses.

Unfortunately, the delay in transitioning results in preventable harms falling on vulnerable populations. Of the roughly 25,000 California buses, the share of electric vehicles is not growing quickly enough. With increasingly frequent devastating climate change impacts and grievous health effects for children, the stakes are too high to wait for cost parity or more government pressure. The speed of this important transition depends on the ability and willingness of communities and school leaders to respond. With more grants and incentives, proliferation of expertise, innovation, and private solutions, schools can start making electric buses a reality, and you can help.

How to Get Involved

For parents or school district constituents hoping to make a difference, contacting key decision makers in your district is an excellent place to start. Most school boards have transportation directors and fleet managers who you can reach by phone or email to voice support for electric school buses. Helping these individuals become champions for electric buses can go a long way because of their domain expertise and authority. An incentives tool from the Department of Energy (and accompanying instructional video) can be useful for transportation and district leaders when addressing financing barriers for school buses. Advocates or school leaders looking for further information can find a more comprehensive list of resources at the end of this article. Contacting or lobbying school board members and your superintendent in a similar manner is another effective channel given their sway over school district agendas and policies. Speaking to the needs of students and educating these stakeholders is a great way to start for those hoping to make an impact for their kids.

There is no cookie-cutter solution, but the need is clear: children from public school communities, particularly disadvantaged groups, are suffering urgent health repercussions and long term pollution-related consequences. Advocate for the protection of students’ developing bodies and minds by contacting relevant decision makers and sharing this article or similar resources.

Learn More and Share this Information With Your District

  1. Department of Energy page covering all aspects of electric school buses including financing, infrastructure, etc.

  2. World Resources Institute is a research nonprofit leading a project on electric school buses. It includes information for district leaders and constituents, including guides to electrification and securing grant funding

  3. See an Electric Bus in Action.

  4. Check out this Podcast by an acclaimed environmental journalist about electric school buses. 

  5. Paper on the effects of diesel exhaust on students 

  6. Electric bus transition case study 

  7. California Air Resources Board page on funding for electric buses

  8. Resources for federal, state, and local Bay Area grant programs from the EPA, California Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck Bus Voucher and Incentive Project, and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

  9. Interactive grant funding tool and map 


Joey Sausville

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