How US school buses are going electric, in four charts

How US school buses are going electric, in four charts

Last month, EPA opened the door for applicants to seek a portion of about $400 million more in Clean School Bus Program grant funding. The new round of funding will be opened to competitive solicitations, a different approach than the first round’s lottery system. It will also aim for bigger fleets — up to 100 buses per district, compared to 25 buses for the first round — and will prioritize districts that can demonstrate public or private-sector cost-sharing and a successful track record of operating existing electric bus fleets in an efficient manner.

EPA’s program also allows districts to apply for funding for buses that burn propane or compressed fossil gas, but 90 percent of districts have so far chosen electric school buses. That indicates a strong preference for vehicles that aren’t just cleaner than their diesel-fueled competitors but are entirely emissions-free — and have lower maintenance and fuel costs.

Electric school buses still cost roughly three times as much as diesel-fueled buses, but prices are coming down thanks to fast-improving battery technology and growing manufacturing capacity. The vehicles are now close to cost-competitive with diesel buses in terms of their lifetime cost of ownership. North America’s three largest school bus manufacturers, Blue Bird, Thomas Built and Lion Electric, each have more than 500 buses on order or delivered to U.S. school districts.

Major school bus manufacturers Blue Bird, Thomas Built and Lion Electric have topped the 500 mark in electric school buses (ESBs) delivered or ordered as of December 2022. (World Resources Institute)

Whether electric school buses end up saving school districts money as well as reducing carbon emissions and air pollution depends on a host of factors, including the cost of financing the vehicles, the time and money spent deploying the chargers needed to keep them on the road, and the cost of training drivers and mechanics to keep them in running order.

But a number of financial models are emerging to help school districts manage the upfront cost of electric school buses and the long-term challenges of scaling up their fleets to a majority of zero-emissions vehicles, according to a new report from Calstart, a nonprofit representing vehicle manufacturers, utilities, other corporations and government agencies on clean transportation policy.

Those models can include contracting with electric-bus-as-a-service or charging-as-a-service providers such as Highland Electric Fleets, Nuvve and Zūm.

These as-a-service” businesses can take over some or all of the capital costs and operating responsibilities of the charging-equipment purchase and installation, the purchase or leasing of the buses themselves, or the broader role of managing a school district’s transportation needs. Highland Electric has contracted with Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools to deploy 326 buses, the single largest electric school bus commitment in the country to date.

Utilities can also play a role in covering the upfront cost of going electric for school districts, Calstart noted.

Virginia utility Dominion Energy, North Carolina utility Duke Energy and Michigan utility DTE Energy have won state regulator permission for pilot programs that allow them to pay for some upfront costs of electric buses and charging infrastructure and recover those costs through charges on all customers’ bills. Tapping the capacity of electric school bus batteries when they’re not driving could also help cushion utilities from power-grid stresses via so-called vehicle-to-grid” (V2G) technology.

Additionally, repowering old buses — converting them from internal-combustion engines to electric drivetrains and batteries — can cost as much as 40 percent less than buying a new electric school bus, Calstart’s report noted. But at least for now, there are outstanding questions about whether businesses can figure out a cost-competitive way to scale up repowering services. Some significant efforts are underway that could help answer those questions — WRI highlighted a contract between SEA Electric and Midwest Transit Equipment to repower 10,000 school buses to electric over five years.

Both WRI and Calstart highlight the need for increased levels of public funding to meet increasingly aggressive state-level goals for adoption of electric school buses.

Last year, New York passed a law that will require all newly purchased school buses to be zero-emissions by 2027 and all of the roughly 47,000 school buses in the state to be electric by 2035 — a mandate accompanied by a commitment of $500 million in environmental bond funding. Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey also passed electric-school-bus mandates and funding laws last year, and similar laws are being proposed in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington state this year.

Exposure to diesel exhaust is known to cause significant health problems and cognitive development impacts, with children being particularly susceptible. The faster that policymakers, school districts and private-sector players can find ways to overcome the upfront cost and complications of making the switch to electric school buses, the more quickly the long-term health and climate benefits will arrive.

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