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It’s Time to Go Back to School—Is It Also Time to Go Electric?

Opportunities to Advance Electric School Bus Technology

Some 50 million children in communities across the United States are heading back to school over the next couple of weeks. About half of these students will get to school on one of 480,000 yellow school buses, more than 90 percent of which are powered by diesel fuel.

School buses are an essential service to help school-aged children get to and from school safely. But using diesel fuel to power these buses erodes some of the benefits, bringing negative environmental and health impacts. Diesel emissions contribute to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and expose children to serious health risks. Fortunately, an alternative is emerging: electric school buses.

The State of School Buses Today

School transportation provides significant social benefits by ensuring that children can get to and from school safely and consistently. School buses are built specifically with safety in mind, with nearly every aspect of the vehicle designed to be as safe as possible. School buses have the fewest accidents of any vehicle on the road.

Yellow school buses also bring environmental benefits because they reduce the need for parents and caregivers to drive children to school. The buses replace an estimated 6 million individual vehicle trips each year, saving roughly 2.2 million gallons of gasoline and preventing the release of well over 20,000 tons of carbon.

The buses replace an estimated 6 million individual vehicle trips each year.

Despite these advantages, opportunities exist to make school buses healthier for both children and the environment. Pollutants from diesel exhaust are known carcinogens, increase asthma rates, and have numerous other health impacts, ranging from neurological to cardiovascular. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns that children and teens, because they have higher breathing rates, are more susceptible than adults to health risks from diesel emissions. Studies in California and Connecticut show that children’s exposure to harmful particulates from school buses may be higher inside the vehicle than outside it. In some cases, particulate concentrations in the buses were 5 to 15 times higher than background levels.

Emerging Alternatives

A number of school districts are considering alternative fuels for school buses, such as propane and natural gas. Although both of these fuel technologies have lower emissions and fewer negative health impacts, they still burn fossil fuels, erode air quality, and emit greenhouse gases. They are less expensive than diesel buses in the short term, but they continue to harm the environment.

Electric school buses are emerging as a viable alternative to fossil fuel-powered buses. Among the benefits of electric buses is the elimination of all tailpipe emissions, resulting in cleaner air surrounding the places where children congregate and wait to board the bus, as well as inside the bus cabin. Electric school buses also are quieter and less expensive to operate.

Electric school buses are emerging as a viable alternative to fossil fuel-powered buses.

Although the electricity used to charge the buses creates some environmental impact, as the energy sector increasingly embraces renewable power sources, such as wind and solar, the environmental benefits from electrified transportation will increase.

Why Aren’t There More Electric School Buses?

Today, the largest barrier to getting more electric buses on the road is the cost. Electric buses cost roughly US$325,000 each, nearly four times the cost of a diesel school bus ($85,000). Operating an electric vehicle also means buying and installing charging equipment, which can increase costs by another $10,000 to $25,000. And although electric school buses are less expensive to operate, savings from lower fuel and maintenance costs do not recover the increased vehicle cost over the 10 or 12 years that the vehicle is expected to be in use.

Electric buses cost roughly US$325,000 each, nearly four times the cost of a diesel school bus.

The cost challenge is exacerbated because public schools are among the most cash-strapped institutions in the United States. Almost all of the funding available for these schools is raised locally, typically through property taxes. This means that, except for a handful of the wealthiest communities, very few school districts are able to afford a premium of nearly $250,000 for an electric school bus.

Let’s Get There: A Path Forward for Electric School Buses

While a handful of electric school buses are in service today, expanding deployment is challenging because of the large financial premium. One potential path to increasing the number of the buses on the road is to engage more stakeholders.

In California, electric school buses are funded by air quality management districts, which see the buses as a viable strategy to meet strict air quality and emission reduction requirements. In Massachusetts, the Department of Energy Resources is leading a pilot project to deploy four electric school buses across the state. The project is exploring the potential to leverage the energy storage available through the bus battery to help reduce energy use in buildings or to serve as a storage resource for utilities. Elsewhere, utilities are exploring the potential of electric school buses to help stabilize the grid by providing demand-response services. Public health professionals also may be interested in electric school buses as they look for strategies to reduce high concentrations of diesel emissions inside bus cabins.

Ultimately, it is this coalition of partners that can help advance electric school bus projects.

Ultimately, it is this coalition of partners that can help advance electric school bus projects. Each stakeholder—air quality districts, utilities, energy efficiency groups, environmental advocates, and healthcare professionals—benefits in direct and indirect ways. Alliances of these diverse interests can help advance the market by providing grant funds and sponsoring demonstration projects.

An additional benefit from early partnerships will be that as more electric school buses get on the road, the cost per vehicle will decrease due to manufacturing improvements over time. As school buses electrify, the benefits will multiply: reducing consumption of fossil fuels, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and contributing to cleaner air for everyone, including the children who ride the buses and the people living along bus routes.

As millions of U.S. children begin the decades-old routine of catching a school bus this month, a cleaner, healthier alternative to the traditional diesel bus is emerging. Getting these vehicles deployed requires a broad coalition of stakeholders, but each of us can work as a catalyst to craft these partnerships, in a variety of ways. These include:

  • Building awareness. Parents can talk to parent-teacher organizations (PTOs), school boards, and school administrators about electric school buses to let them know that the technology is available and is safer for their children.
  • Finding funds. School boards and school administrators can apply for grant funds to help offset the cost of electric school buses. Schools can use funds from the Diesel Emission Reduction Act (DERA) to purchase electric school buses and experiment with the technology.
  • Lobbying legislators. Parents, school boards, and school administrators can lobby local and state legislators to help schools find funding to support electric buses. Potential sources include funds made through the Volkswagen settlement.
  • Finding partners. School boards, PTOs, and administrators can work with local electrical utilities to assess their interest in the technology and see if they have access to resources that could support electric school buses.

Stephanie Morse is a consultant in the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation’s Transportation Efficiency Team. Stephanie has been working on electric school bus issues at VEIC for the past several years and was lead author of the recently released Electric School Bus Feasibility Study, funded by the Canaday Family Charitable Trust. She also was lead investigator for the New York State Grid-Interactive Vehicle Study, sponsored by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

 Bethany Whitaker is a senior consultant in VEIC’s Transportation Efficiency Team. She has 25 years of experience working in the public transportation sector, including for a transit agency and in private sector consulting. Since joining VEIC, Bethany has been leading efforts to guide and transition the funding and financing of heavy-duty fleet vehicles as they shift to electric modes. She currently is managing an electric school bus pilot project in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

2 thoughts on “It’s Time to Go Back to School—Is It Also Time to Go Electric?”

  1. This is a fascinating concept; however, it is obvious that California’s four concept buses aren’t going to be enough volume to bring the bring the price down.

    To me the ideal would be for many school boards to form a nation-wide coalition, each individually defining the price mark that it deems reasonable before it can invest in this technology. With that in hand, hopefully with numbers in the thousands for the aggregate, direct negotiations with potential manufacturers (Tesla comes to mind) becomes a more reasonable and attractive proposition.

    Also, the prospect of creating a large number of sustainable jobs in manufacturing and maintenance should be a very attractive selling point to federal, state, and local politicians!

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