The Biden administration recently announced the new funding for this year, in addition to $5 billion in infrastructure act funds, for school districts to replace polluting diesel buses. But making the switch to electric will be challenging for some communities.
For the small Petersburg City Public Schools district near Richmond, Virginia, being awarded $900,000 in federal funds to help buy four electric school buses is "a big deal," said Arthur Squire, facilities and operations director for the district of 4,200 students.
“We all know that electric buses are the new wave," Squire said.
The district, in a largely Black city where almost a quarter of the residents live in poverty, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, is one of about 150 districts nationwide now receiving funding to begin moving away from the polluting diesel buses that are putting the health of the children who ride them at risk.
Eleven districts, including Petersburg, were awarded in March $7 million in total in American Rescue Act Plan funding to buy electric school buses. Nearly another 140 others received $10 million through a separate diesel reduction program to fund 444 electric or other kinds of buses that run cleaner than diesel.
But those awards are just the start of the Biden administration's efforts to transform the nation’s school bus fleets. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it is taking applications for another $500 million in grants it plans to award this year to help school districts buy electric buses.
The EPA will be doling out much more, as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside $5 billion over five years to help schools move toward electric buses. Getting priority for the money will be disadvantaged and rural communities.
To Carl Lisek, executive director of Drive Clean Indiana, it seemed like a big deal when former President Obama included $300 million for a variety of clean energy transportation projects including buying eclectic school buses in the 2009 $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But the infrastructure act includes billions just for cleaner-driving school buses.
“It’s like drinking water from a fire hose,” said Lisek, whose nonprofit organization is one of more than 75 local Department of Energy coalitions that works to advance fuel-efficient transportation technologies.
While the 480,000 school buses make up 80% of all buses nationwide, less than 1% run on electricity, according to The World Resource Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. Electrifying all of them, according to the center, would cut emissions from all types of buses in the nation by about a third.
“This could create a tipping point for decarbonizing the entire U.S. transportation sector—responsible for almost 30% of the nation’s [greenhouse gas emissions],” the center said.
An example of the impact, according to Clean Drive Indiana, is an electric bus that Crown Point, Indiana schools bought in March. The district received $314,00 from the state’s share of a 2017 EPA settlement, in which Volkswagen agreed to pay $4.7 billion into environmental mitigation fees and support green technologies nationally after the agency accused the company of installing devices that “cheat emissions tests.”
The bus will save Crown Point schools from buying more than 20,000 gallons of diesel fuel over the life of the bus, according to Drive Clean Indiana. That will eliminate 226 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions or the equivalent of what 50 passenger vehicles create in a year, according to the group, which assists school districts in making the conversion to electric buses.
In addition, studies say electric buses pose less of a health risk for the children who ride in them. A 2002 study by Environment and Human Health, a nonprofit made up of doctors, public health professionals and policy experts, said that diesel exhaust is made up of fine particles of carbon and toxic gasses that cause cancer and worsen respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis.
The infrastructure dollars “will forever transform school bus fleets across the United States,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in announcing the $500 million in funding.
“These funding opportunities to replace older, heavily-polluting buses will result in healthier air for many of the 25 million American children who rely on school buses, many of whom live in overburdened and underserved communities,” he said, adding the money is “a major step toward a future where clean, zero-emissions school buses are the American standard.”
Getting priority for the money under the law are school districts in communities, where 20% of the students are living in poverty or are in rural or tribal areas, said the EPA, which has released a preliminary list of thousands of districts that qualify.
Giving priority to those schools, the EPA said, furthers Biden’s goal to have 40% of the benefits of federal funding in areas like climate change, housing and transportation to disadvantaged communities.
That the small Petersburg, Virginia school district was one of only dozens in the nation to receive the funding “was pretty amazing,” said Squire. The funds will allow the district to replace three of its 40 diesel buses with electric ones in September or October, said Gerald Robertson, the district’s supervisor of pupil transportation.
In addition to the environmental and health benefits, Robertson and Squire said the buses will be a lot easier and cheaper to maintain than the older diesel buses.
Robertson said the district will power its buses with a charger supplied by the local power company, Dominion Energy, a process that takes about eight hours and will allow a bus to go 17 miles. The district is only 14 miles from end to end.
Switch Won’t Be Easy
Lisek, though, acknowledged switching to electric buses can mean working through a number of issues for school districts.
Many districts don’t have the staff to figure out how to charge the buses. Electric buses do not go as far if the air conditioning or heater is running.
And with charging stations not as available in some areas, Lisek said his group works with districts to plan their routes or make sure the football team can get to a game and come back.
“It’s not as easy as going over to the dealership and say, ‘Hey, I want to go electric,” he acknowledged.
Still, he said, the buses are looking more attractive as gas prices skyrocket. And districts will not have to worry as much about maintaining them.
“They won’t have to worry about oil changes,” Lisek said. “The joke is that the only fluid they’ll have to worry about is window washer fluid.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.