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Energy

US electric school bus adoption hits new high, detractors debate practicality

Dec 11, 2023

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More electric school buses are set to hit American roadways than ever before, jumping by more than 200% since the start of 2022. There are now electric school bus commitments in 49 states, simulated by an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rebate program, which awarded over $900 million for thousands of these vehicles across the nation.

“This investment will transform how millions of students get to school each and every day. It will help clean the air we breathe, protect public health and tackle the climate crisis,” said Michael Regan, administrator of the EPA. “These efforts will help build a better America by sending a strong signal to the industry and communities that zero-emission vehicles, they are the future.”

This initiative is part of the $5 billion earmarked within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to replace existing school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models by 2026. The EPA projects that come 2027, nearly one-third of all school buses will be electric.

To keep up with growing demand, Blue Bird — one of the nation’s oldest school bus manufacturers — is investing millions in a new Electric Vehicle Build-up Center. The company hopes this new facility will help increase their production capacity from four electric buses per day to 20. Doing so would ultimately allow Blue Bird to output around 5,000 of these vehicles annually, more than quadrupling the number it currently has in operation.

“Based on the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law alone we anticipate thousands of additional electric school bus orders valued at an estimated $1 billion over five years,” said Phil Horlock, president and CEO of Blue Bird Corporation. “Our new EV Build-up Center reflects Blue Bird’s steadfast commitment to school districts across the U.S. and Canada to meet increasing demand and deliver clean, safe and reliable student transportation when they need it.”

Experts say there are a number of potential benefits from this coming transition to electric school buses. A study by the World Resources Institute found that electrifying the full school bus fleet in the United States by 2030 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the roads.

Because electric school bus motors create no tailpipe emissions, they reduce students’ exposure to dangerous air pollutants. That keeps students safe from the serious physical dangers of diesel exhaust pollution.

Electric School Bus Initiative

“Because electric school bus motors create no tailpipe emissions, they reduce students’ exposure to dangerous air pollutants,” the Electric School Bus Initiative said. “That keeps students safe from the serious physical dangers of diesel exhaust pollution. Reducing students’ exposure to air pollution from school buses has been shown to have positive and significant effects.”

Each electric school bus produces less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of their diesel or propane-powered counterpart. They also offer reduced health risks when compared to the over 40 toxic air contaminants that exhaust fumes from diesel buses contain.

“Diesel engine exhaust is carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence that exposure is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer,” said the American Lung Association. “Clean, electric school buses are better for kids’ health. School bus electrification is an important part of making the air healthier for everyone, especially children.”

Electrifying bus fleets also can save school districts money in the long-run, at an average of $6,000 every year on operational expenditures. Duncan McIntyre, CEO of Highland Electric Fleets — a company contracting services for electric school buses — said the maintenance costs are “probably about a third of the cost of a combustion engine vehicle.”

However, opponents of the movement say a mass adoption of electric school buses still is not practical. While the cost of maintaining these buses is less than those with combustion engines, their upfront expense is three to four times higher, coming with a price tag of around $350,000 to $450,000.

“If I have to replace my entire fleet of buses, and let’s say the most expensive bus I have is $160,000, to replace everything with a bus that’s going to cost $400,000, that’s huge, that’s really significant to our budget,” said Mellissa Mulvey, a school superintendent in western New York.

Additional concerns include the range of the batteries, which are capped at around 100 miles, making longer commutes or field trips difficult with an electric school bus. Newer models are being developed with batteries that will allow them to travel greater distance in an effort to alleviate some of these fears.

“If somebody handed me an endless amount of money and said ‘electrify your entire fleet tomorrow,’ there will be some routes that would be challenging to electrify today,” said Boston School District’s Deputy Director of Transportation Jacqueline Hayes. “But we’re pretty confident that technology is going to get there in the next five years.”

Meanwhile, rural communities have also voiced opposition due to the scarcity of EV chargers and the toll electric school buses would take on their local power grid. The EPA has said it will prioritize funding for these rural districts and others that are most in need of assistance.

EPA will prioritize applications that will replace buses serving low-income, rural and Tribal communities.

Environmental Protection Agency

“EPA will prioritize applications that will replace buses serving low-income, rural and Tribal communities,” the EPA said in a statement. “Large school districts with communities of concentrated poverty also will be prioritized if their application focuses on clean school buses serving those communities.”

Officials hope that those government funds will help clear these hurdles, making charging technology more widely available and reducing the costs faced by school districts. Solving this issue comes with a ticking clock, as more and more states are now setting deadlines to mandate the purchase of only electric school buses going forward.

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[JACK ALYMER]

SCHOOL BUSES HAVEN’T CHANGED MUCH IN DECADES.

THE ICONIC BIG YELLOW VEHICLE HAS BEEN AN AMERICAN STAPLE.

BUT THE WAY KIDS ACROSS THE COUNTRY GET TO SCHOOL IS NOW CHANGING.

MORE ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUSES ARE HITTING U.S. ROADWAYS THAN EVER BEFORE.

JUMPING BY MORE THAN TWO HUNDRED PERCENT SINCE THE START OF 20-22.

THERE ARE NOW ELECTRIC BUS COMMITMENTS IN FORTY NINE STATES AND THE E.P.A. PROJECTS THAT BY 20-27 NEARLY A THIRD OF ALL SCHOOL BUSES MADE WILL BE EVS. 

THE PUSH TO ELECTRIFY IS BEING FUELED PARTLY BY A FEDERAL REBATE PROGRAM, PUMPING BILLIONS OF DOLLARS FROM THE BIPARTISAN INFRASTRUCTURE LAW INTO SCHOOL SYSTEMS ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

THE GOAL – TO REPLACE EXISTING FLEETS WITH ZERO-EMISSION MODELS. 

[KAMALA HARRIS]

“I’m so excited about these electric school buses. And when I think about what we have been able to do through the infrastructure law, what it means is that we have now invested and that’s the announcement today $5 billion over the next five years.”

[JACK ALYMER]

TO KEEP UP WITH GROWING DEMAND, ONE OF AMERICA’S OLDEST SCHOOL BUS MANUFACTURERS, BLUE BIRD, IS EVOLVING. 

THE COMPANY IS CONSTRUCTING A NEW EV BUILD-UP CENTER WHICH THEY SAY, WILL INCREASE PRODUCTION CAPACITY FIVE-FOLD.  

THIS WOULD ULTIMATELY ALLOW BLUE BIRD TO OUTPUT AROUND FIVE THOUSAND ELECTRIC BUSES A YEAR.

[PHIL HORLOCK]

“This is our new zero emission electric school bus. It is extremely quiet. It has plenty of power. We even had to install a noise generator to emit some type of noise because it is super quiet. Phantom power and you’ll be amazed.”

[JACK ALYMER]

THE COMPANY’S CEO SAYS THEY ARE ANTICIPATING THOUSANDS OF ORDERS FOR THESE VEHICLES – WITH AN ESTIMATED VALUE OF ONE BILLION DOLLARS OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS.

EXPERTS ARE ON BOARD WITH THE PLAN. CITING A NUMBER OF POTENTIAL BENEFITS COMING FROM THE TRANSITION. 

A STUDY BY THE WORLD RESOURCES INSTITUTE FOUND THAT ELECTRIFYING THE FULL U.S. SCHOOL BUS FLEET BY 20-30 WOULD SIGNIFICANTLY  REDUCE GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS.

THE AMOUNT WOULD BE EQUIVALENT TO TAKING TWO MILLION CARS OFF THE ROAD.

EACH ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUS PRODUCES LESS THAN HALF THE EMISSIONS OF THEIR DIESEL OR PROPANE-POWERED COUNTERPART.

[KEVIN MATTHEWS]

“When you convert that to zero emissions, the air quality improvement is even significantly higher. So the overall benefits are quite high for the environment for the children and for the communities where the school buses operate.”

[JACK ALYMER]

THERE ARE ALSO FEWER HEALTH RISKS WHEN COMPARED TO THE MORE THAN FORTY TOXIC AIR CONTAMINANTS COMING FROM THE EXHAUST FUMES OF DIESEL BUSES.

[MICAEL REGAN]

“It’s good for the children because they’re breathing cleaner air. And it’s good for the parents because they can feel good sending their kids to school, knowing that one child or their children might have one less asthma attack because they’re not exposed to diesel pollution. So this is a win win win.”-EPA Administrator Michael Regan

[SCOTT BUXBAUM]

“Our students riding on the buses, our staff driving the buses, you know, right now, there’s pollution everyday coming in on our diesel fleet … Electrification is where it’s going.”

[JACK ALYMER]

ACCORDING TO THE ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUS INITIATIVE, THEY SAVE SCHOOL DISTRICTS MONEY TOO.

A REDUCTION OF SIX-THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR ON AVERAGE OPERATIONAL COSTS.

[TIMOTHY SHANNON]

“Clean air, zero emission electric school buses after running them for over two years, we have found significant reduction in cost of operation, about 80% reduction in maintenance costs. Overall, the running of electric vehicles is much less expensive than running a diesel vehicle.”

[JACK ALYMER]

BUT THE PLAN IS NOT WITHOUT ITS CRITICS.

OPPONENTS SAY A MASS ADOPTION OF ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUSES JUST ISN’T PRACTICAL.

WHILE MAINTENANCE COSTS FOR E-VS ARE LOWER THAN THOSE OF COMBUSTION ENGINE BUSES – THE UPFRONT EXPENSE IS 3-TO-4 TIMES HIGHER. 

THAT PUTS THE PRICE TAG OF A NEW BIG YELLOW BUS AT AROUND THREE-HUNDRED-AND-FIFTY-THOUSAND TO FOUR-HUNDRED-FIFTY-THOUSAND-DOLLARS.

THE RANGE OF THESE E-V BATTERIES IS ANOTHER FACTOR. 

THEIR AVERAGE RANGE – CAPPED AT AROUND ONE-HUNDRED-MILES. 

AS IF FIELD TRIPS WEREN’T HARD ENOUGH FOR BUS DRIVERS. 

RURAL COMMUNITIES ARE ALSO VOICING CONCERNS.  

THE SCARCITY OF EV CHARGERS AND THE TOLL ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUSES WOULD TAKE ON THEIR LOCAL POWER GRID – ARE TOP OF MIND FOR MANY. 

[ROBERT AUTH]

“I’d be all for this if the technology was ready to roll, and to transport our children safely in the cabins, back and forth to school …It’s not working properly at this time, the technology is not there yet to be implemented.”

[JACK ALYMER]

OFFICIALS ARE HOPING GOVERNMENT FUNDING WILL HELP CLEAR THESE HURDLES, BY MAKING CHARGING TECHNOLOGY MORE WIDELY AVAILABLE AND BY REDUCING THE COSTS FACED BY SCHOOL DISTRICTS.

[SUE GANDER]

“What … the bipartisan infrastructure act … did was create a new $5 billion Clean School Bus program. One half of that funding 2.5 billion is dedicated solely to funding electric school buses infrastructure.”

[JACK ALYMER]

AND THE CLOCK IS TICKING TO FACE THESE CHALLENGES. 

THERE ARE DEADLINES ACROSS THE COUNTRY, WITH MANY MANDATING A PUSH TO PURCHASE ONLY ELECTRIC SCHOOL BUSES GOING FORWARD. 

SO WHILE WHAT’S UNDER THE HOOD COULD BE CHANGING QUICKLY, AT LEAST THE ICONIC YELLOW PAINT JOB SEEMS TO BE HERE TO STAY.