Going Electric: School Bus Fleets on the Road to Diesel Alternatives
A handful of school districts have made major moves and testify to the payoffs
BY BILL GRAVES/School Administrator, October 2022
Six years ago, Tim Shannon was shopping to upgrade the aging bus fleet in Northern California’s Twin Rivers Unified School District when he learned a state agency fighting air pollution was offering grants to buy electric school buses.
|Timothy Shannon, director of facilities planning, efficiency and transportation in Twin Rivers, Calif., Unified School District, braided federal and state grants to replace diesel buses with electric vehicles. REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM SCHOOL TRANSPORTATION NEWS
After some research, Shannon, the director of facilities planning, efficiency and transportation, applied. The California Air Resources Board gave the school district money for 16 electric school buses and charging stations.
Shannon never looked back.
The electric buses saved 80 percent in fuel costs and 60 percent on maintenance, he says. “We will never buy another diesel or gasoline school bus because they are dirty, inefficient, and they are not healthy,” adds Shannon, who started in the district as a bus driver.
The 22,800-student Twin Rivers district in Sacramento has since collected $26 million in federal and state grants to buy 55 electric school buses and build a charging infrastructure, giving it the nation’s largest electric fleet. It plans to replace its remaining 25 diesel buses within a year, making it the first school district in the country to drive only electric buses for student transportation.
Electric buses emit no fumes, and they tend to be more dependable, quieter and smoother than diesel buses. Plus, students and most drivers love them, say Shannon and transportation leaders in other districts pioneering their use.
A growing number of school systems, from Alaska’s Gateway School District to Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, are buying electric school buses. Some have set goals to become fully electric, and in April, New York became the first state to pass legislation for making all school buses electric by 2035.
“The trend in adoption has been growing exponentially every year,” says Brittany Barrett, a senior manager with the Electric School Bus Initiative of the nonprofit World Resources Institute.
But electric school buses remain rare. Nationwide, about 480,000 school buses, 95 percent diesel, carry more than 20 million children to and from school each day. By this past March, 415 school districts in 38 states collectively had committed to replacing fewer than 1 percent of those with 2,275 electric school buses, according to WRI. And only a fraction of those buses, 598, had been delivered, with at least 285 actually on the road carrying students.
However, Los Angeles-based SEA Electric, which makes electric commercial vehicles, has teamed up with Midwest Transit Equipment to give those numbers a boost. The team will repower 10,000 existing school buses to make them electric over five years and sell them for a third of the cost of new electric buses. The U.S. market of all electric buses is expected to climb between now and 2030 by a compound annual growth rate of 17 percent to $2.6 billion, according to StraitsResearch, a market intelligence firm.
The nascent electric school bus movement is not emerging from the public education sector so much as from electric utilities and environmental advocates.
Utilities such as Dominion Energy in Virginia see future customers and potential power packs in electric school buses and are helping pay for them and their charging stations. Bus batteries offer what utilities call a vehicle-to-grid capacity to store electricity and support the grid.
Government agencies and nonprofit environmental groups say converting school bus fleets to electric can significantly reduce greenhouse gases. School buses comprise a sizeable share of the nation’s transport sector, which accounts for 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions according to the International Energy Agency, says Barrett.
For most school districts, especially small ones, the upfront costs pose the biggest obstacle to buying electric school buses. An electric bus typically costs three times more than a $125,000 diesel vehicle, and it requires a charging station. So utility companies, environmental groups and federal and state agencies are putting up money and expertise to help districts buy electric buses. And electric bus makers are helping them train drivers and mechanics.
No state has invested more heavily in electric school buses than California, which has pledged to acquire 1,022 of them, nearly half the nation’s commitment.
|Plug-in recharging stations in Twin Rivers, Calif., accommodate the current fleet of 55 electric buses in the district, which intends to replace its remaining 25 diesel buses within a year. PHOTO COURTESY OF TWIN RIVERS, CALIF., UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
The 41,000-student Stockton Unified School District in Northern California received $4.9 million from the California Air Resources Board’s Clean Mobility in Schools Project in 2019 to buy its first four electric school buses and, as in Twin Rivers, to improve air quality. Stockton lies in San Joaquin Valley, which has among the state’s highest levels of air pollution and asthma.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas, who served for 10 years as Stockton’s energy education specialist, says it was like spinning multiple plates on sticks to coordinate partnerships with private energy consultants, the national nonprofit Center for Transportation and the Environment, Pacific Gas and Electric and other groups to secure the major grant. Spinning more plates, Rosas leveraged the state grant to win $1.9 million from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, $784,000 from the California Energy Commission and other awards. Collectively, Stockton received $8.3 million in grants, enough to build charging stations for 24 buses and to replace 11 of its 96 diesel buses with electric buses that began operating in August 2021.
This spring, Rosas joined the nearby 32,000-student Modesto School District as director of sustainability and adaptability. In April, the Modesto school board voted to replace half its bus fleet with 30 electric school buses at the cost of $14 million and with help from California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project. Those buses will transport students by January, Rosas says.
A growing number of funding sources are fueling the electric school bus movement, and many favor districts like Stockton and Modesto that have fewer resources and serve large numbers of low-income students. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will administer $5 billion from Congress’ 2021 infrastructure bill over the next five years to replace diesel buses with electric or low-emission buses.
States also are pitching in. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has proposed spending $150 million on electric school buses. California already has spent more than $200 million and budgeted $150 million more, and Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending another $1.5 billion. At least 10 other states are considering funding proposals.
“We’ve never seen funding like this in our lifetime,” says Rosas. “It is a tsunami, and we’re surf riders.”
In early 2021, the 450-student Knox County R-1 School District in Edina, Mo., purchased its first electric bus. Now it has two more and hopes to eventually make its entire 14-bus fleet electric.
The rural district joined forces in 2020 with its local electric cooperative to explore electric school buses, says Andy Turgeon, the district’s superintendent for 12 years. They learned, he says, electric buses were healthier, cheaper to drive, easier to maintain and a potential source of backup power.
Knox County spent only $7,500 on its first electric bus thanks to grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, two utilities, and the state’s share of Volkswagen’s legal payout for its 2015 diesel emission scandal. The district turned its retired diesel bus into the School Bus Café, a place where students get on-the-job training in business management and marketing.
By the district’s calculations, its electric bus in its first year cost 12 cents a mile to drive, compared to 31 cents a mile for diesel, and eliminated 24,380 lbs. of greenhouse gas emissions, a benefit equal to planting 286 trees that grow for a decade.
Knox County paid more, $49,000 each, for its next two electric buses. Turgeon hopes to get EPA rebates for 11 electric buses to replace its remaining diesel fleet. He may need to keep one or two diesel buses, though, he says. While the roughly 125-mile electric bus range is sufficient for Knox County’s routes, it’s not enough for longer trips to distant schools for sports and other extracurricular events.
Rhonda Cardwell, a bus driver for 22 years, completed her first year driving an electric school bus for Knox County this summer. She says the bus performs as well or better than diesel buses in snow and ice.
“I really like it,” she says. “You hear more around you. You notice the kids more.”
Two big East Coast districts, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, are moving aggressively to electrify their bus fleets, again primarily to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
|Andy Turgeon (right), superintendent of Knox County R-1 Schools in Edina, Mo., has overseen the purchase of three electric buses for his small rural district. PHOTO COURTESY OF ANDY TURGEON
In 2019, the Fairfax County school board, following recommendations of an environmental task force, declared its goal to electrify its entire 1,625-bus fleet by 2035.
Dominion Energy helped pay for 50 electric school buses in its Virginia service area, including eight buses for Fairfax County schools, which serve 185,000 students. Each electric bus costs $376,000, but the district paid only $130,000, the cost of a diesel bus. Dominion made up the difference. The utility also built the district’s charging stations. The electric buses rolled in early 2021.
The shift means “cleaner air for our students and community and drivers,” says Francine Furby, Fairfax’s transportation director, who drove school buses early in her 30-year career.
Last spring, Fairfax bought 10 more electric buses at diesel bus prices with grants from the state’s share of the Volkswagen diesel scandal legal settlement. The district also applied for state grants for an additional 10 buses, meaning it will be running 28 electric buses by next summer. To meet its 2035 goal, the district must buy about 130 electric buses every year, says Furby, at an annual cost of about $50 million.
Montgomery County Public Schools, which enrolls 159,000 students, wants to electrify as much of its 1,288-bus fleet as possible by 2035 as part of a broader county initiative to address climate change, says Jeanie Dawson, district chief of finance and operations. The diesel fleet daily burns 18,000 gallons of fuel.
“We wanted to be innovative with renewable energy and see that as the wave of the future,” Dawson says.
The district is essentially leasing electric buses through a contract with Highland Electric Transportation of Beverly, Mass., and Thomas Built Buses, a bus manufacturer, Dawson says. Montgomery County had 25 electric buses in its fleet last school year with plans to add 61 more this fall and another 120 in each of the next two years.
Furby and Dawson say districts considering electric buses should plan carefully, work in stages and seek grants and partners to address costs.
“You need to have a dedicated person in your organization who can really learn and understand this new technology and what programs are out there and who to connect with,” Furby says.
An AASA Collaborative
New projects have emerged to help school districts navigate the labyrinth of funding sources that can help them buy electric buses.
WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative will spend $30 million over the next five years to work with bus makers, utility companies, policy-makers and school communities to help districts go electric.
AASA, the Association of School Business Officials International and the National Association for Pupil Transportation this past spring created the Electric School Bus Collaborative.
The collaborative will encourage the $5 billion EPA Clean School Bus program and school districts to come up “with a more logical and cogent plan about how we deploy electric school buses across the entire fleet,” says Michael Martin, NAPT’s strategic adviser.
The EPA program will buy about 10,000 electric buses, he says, which means the nation’s schools face “a long-term play” in the transition to all electric buses.
Even so, some school leaders think the movement is gaining momentum.
“When bus drivers and students get used to an electric bus,” says Turgeon, Knox County’s superintendent, “they are not going to want to go back to diesel.”
BILL GRAVES is an education freelance writer in Beaverton, Ore.
School leaders who want to replace diesel buses with electric ones face the major challenge of high upfront expenses. Electric buses cost about three times more than diesel vehicles and require a charging infrastructure.
By working with a network of organizations ranging from local utilities to state and federal environmental agencies and nonprofit environmental groups, school districts can get help with the costs. Groups such as Highland Electric Fleets offer financing and leasing programs.
What follows are a few organizations that school district officials can contact about going electric with their transit fleet.
»Alliance For Electric School Buses has a mission to electrify the nation’s school bus fleet.
»Electric School Bus Coalition, a group of bus makers, electric utilities, non-governmental organizations and material providers, promotes electric buses.
»The Electric School Bus Collaborative. AASA, along with the Association of School Business Officials International and the National Association for Pupil Transportation, have formed a partnership to help districts work with EPA’s Clean School Bus program, offering $5 billion in grants over five years. Contact AASA’s Sasha Pudelski at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
»Highland Electric Fleets offers financing plans to make electric school buses more affordable.
»U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s $5 billion Clean School Bus Program offers grants to help school districts buy electric buses.
»World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative works with bus manufacturers, utilities, policymakers and community groups to give school districts technical and financial help in acquiring electric school buses.
— BILL GRAVES