Electric buses will become a more frequent presence on school grounds in the coming years, spurred by a slew of grant programs and newly proposed federal regulations that aim to accelerate electric vehicle production.
The federal government this week opened applications for the latest round of what will end up being $5 billion in grants for districts that want to transition away from diesel buses. The Clean School Bus Program was part of the 2021 legislative package known as the Inflation Reduction Act, designed to spur massive investments in fighting climate change.
The early rounds generated significant interest. So far, 400 districts spanning all 50 states have been awarded nearly $1 billion to purchase a total of 2,400 electric and 121 propane buses, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency‘s grant website. Twenty-seven districts, including in Atlanta, Dallas, Jackson, Miss., and Washington, D.C., were awarded nearly $10 million each to add 25 electric buses to their fleets, the maximum number available for a single district through the grant.
More than 2,000 districts applied for a total of $4 billion during the early rounds of grants. The remaining 1,600 or so districts are on a waitlist.
Electric school buses emit fewer toxic fumes and unpleasant odors than the nearly half a million diesel buses that transport more than 20 million of America’s K-12 students to and from school every day on the nation’s largest public transportation fleet. Students’ health and academic performance benefit as a result, with one study finding students who rode an electric bus saw an increase of English test scores comparable to “the impact of an experienced teacher.”
The newfangled vehicles, and the charging infrastructure necessary to keep them running, cost several times more than a typical diesel bus. And some district leaders worry about their capacity to traverse the tricky terrain in their districts. Proponents, meanwhile, argue that the long-term energy savings from converting to an electric fleet offset the initial investments and logistical challenges.
Some districts have used electric buses to help students learn more about ongoing efforts to climate change. Others, like in Beverly, Mass., have contributed the energy from their charged batteries back to the local electric grid during times of peak demand in the summer when the buses aren’t in use.
The number of electric school buses districts are operating or have committed to purchasing has risen from fewer than 1,000 at the end of 2020 to more than 13,000 in 39 states by last fall, according to data from the World Resources Institute, whose Electric School Bus Initiative tracks and assists electric school bus programs in districts nationwide. Of those, slightly more than 1,000 are currently on the road.
Those numbers don’t factor in the EPA grant recipients.
The federal government is paving the way for the electric bus market to expand
Meanwhile, the EPA earlier this month announced a pair of proposed rules that would require vehicle manufacturers—including school bus companies—to limit overall emissions from their fleets. The only way manufacturers could stay within those thresholds would be to dramatically increase the percentage of their new vehicles that run on electricity rather than diesel or propane.
The regulations will undergo a comment period and a lengthy review that could prompt changes before taking effect later this year. Once they do, they will create conditions for more than a third of all school buses sold to be electric by 2032, according to the EPA’s draft regulatory impact analysis.
Last year, the percentage of school buses sold that were electric was slightly more than 1 percent, according to World Resources Institute estimates.
“It’s not the full-fleet transition by that time that we’re looking for,” said Sue Gander, director of the organization’s Electric School Bus Initiative. “But it creates a lot of momentum, and goes farther than any regulatory effort to date.”
At the state level, last year was a banner one for policies promoting electric school buses. Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New York, and the city of Boston passed laws that set goals for electrifying school buses by a certain date. Colorado, Connecticut, and New Jersey set up grant programs for schools to purchase electric buses, which tend to run about two to three times the upfront cost of a traditional diesel bus. And 17 states have signed on to a multi-state initiative to spur electrification of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles including school buses.
Slightly more than half of states have devoted some grant funds of their own to electric buses, according to data collected by Atlas EV Hub and published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Of those, Colorado has made the largest investment per resident: $12.97.
“We still have quite a ways to go,” Gander said. But, she said, the recent surge of interest in electric buses “sends a signal to the market that this is a direction we’re going in.”