(Gov. Jay Inslee cuts a ribbon for Washington state's first electric school bus at Franklin Pierce High School in Tacoma in 2019)
Coming to a school near you over the next four years: Electric buses.
Late in October, the EPA announced awards for $1 billion in rebate funding for school districts to buy "alternative fuel" buses. The funding came out of the 2021 Infrastructure act, and is the first round of a total of $5 billion for electric and other non-diesel buses.
The rebate application was wildly popular — the EPA received four times more applications than the $1 billion would cover. Perhaps unsurprisingly so, as it was a relatively simple application would cover most, if not all, of the cost of each bus. That $1 billion covered the costs of just over 2,300 electric buses, and a handful of other alternatives.
School buses are one of the largest public transit systems in the U.S. and the people they carry are often the youngest students. Electric buses have a lot going for them: no diesel fumes for students and lower operating costs over the life of the bus, but their up front cost difference has limited their takeoff in school districts.
To give you an idea of the scale of the most recent funding: before 2022, the World Resources Institute — an organization that works with school to move towards electric buses estimates the grand total for electric school bus grants, both state and federal, totaled just over $400 million, more than half of that awarded in California. On the other end, there's an estimated 500,000 school buses in the U.S. So this both an huge increase and a drop in the bucket of switching over buses.
This big move was the foundation of a story I published recently on some key decisions in front of school districts as they considered this funding. It's about very different models of thinking about how school operates its buses including some ones look like a traditional bus fleet but aren't:
Among these new leasing models is one offered by Highland Electric, a Massachusetts company that inked a deal with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in 2021 for what will become the largest deployment of electric school buses.
The Washington, D.C. suburb’s 1,300 bus fleet covers a sprawling district with five bus depots. As of the beginning of this school year MCPS has 22 electric buses on the road, and expects to have 66 more delivered by the end of the year.
Under the deal, Highland purchases and owns the buses, is responsible for the maintenance, as well as installing and managing the charging infrastructure. MCPS pays a yearly fee under a four-year contract, with the option to continue.
MCPS also plans to convert their entire fleet this way in 12 years. But after talking to multiple school districts who had applied for the rebates, I began to get a sense of their priorities and why this model may or may not work for them. Transportation directors at these districts are thinking about all kinds of practical and financial implications.
The program was so popular that each of the school districts I spoke to, in three different states, didn't receive an rebate. But almost 400 districts or other organizations did, adding up to almost 2,500 diesel buses replaced.
You can see a full list of the districts awarded rebates here.
There's still $4 billion left to distribute across the next four years. So if you have a kid in school, its increasingly likely they'll be riding an electric bus there.
Last week I asked on Instagram what questions you had on electric school buses. Here's what readers wanted to know:
Is federal money available for a lease? I usually understand fed $ for capital stuff.
The short answer is no, a fully-leased model was not eligible for this round of federal funding. There is one big caveat: companies that school districts contract with to provide bus service could apply for electric buses to be used within the school district, with the condition that an equivalent number of diesel buses be scrapped and they run them on behalf of the school district for at least five years.
Will they require retraining drivers?
Not officially, although I suspect a short course on ways of driving most efficiently on an electric vehicle would be helpful. One school district I spoke to actually held feedback sessions with their bus drivers ahead of putting in their rebate application. Among other things, the drivers preferred an electric bus model that included a front nose — that felt more familiar and safe for them to drive. But that might not be the case in districts where they have had flat-faced buses for a long time.
How can we support districts to order/procure them?
At the moment, probably the best thing you can do for school districts is make them very aware of opportunities to apply for the next $4 billion of funding as they come up, as well as some of the alternative models that don't need the same up-front capital funding approval.
The up-front cost difference between an electric and diesel bus remains larger than many districts are willing or able to swing. (Both the federal funding and the alternative models are trying to play into economies of scale to start to bring that cost down.) Ultimately, paying for electric school buses (and any savings they recoup from operating costs or electricity benefits) is a financial priorities question for each district.
The other element that I touched on in the story was how school districts needed to prepare to have electric school buses. While range is primary an issue outside of day-to-day use (say, driving to a different town for high school sports, field trips), schools will need some technical assistance to set up chargers and plan routes in the most efficient way. Residents who want to lobby to bring electric buses to their district can also point out this is part of that transition.
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