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Wisconsin winters can be harsh. That was one of the biggest concerns for Craig Hayes, district administrator for the School District of Wild Rose.
“You hear about electric vehicles in cold weather, and we’re in a cold weather climate,” he says. “How does that affect the battery? Are we going to have a bus stranded on the road with kids on it?”
These were the sorts of questions for which Hayes had to hunt down answers before Wild Rose was ready to begin the process of converting its 14-vehicle diesel school bus fleet to plug-in electric buses, or e-buses – a move the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hoping every school district in the country will make in the coming years.
Right now, the cost of a new e-bus is still quite prohibitive.
“A new e-bus costs close to four times the amount of a diesel bus,” Hayes says. “That’s the difficult part of the equation.”
To accomplish its goal of transitioning the entire country’s fleet of 480,000 diesel school buses to e-buses, the EPA launched the Clean School Bus Program, which will funnel to school districts $5 million allocated for the cause by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021.
To access the funding, districts can apply for grants to pay for future purchases or rebates to cover past purchases. The funding can be used for e-buses and the charging equipment needed to power them.
The logic behind the program is the same as for the climate provisions within the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act: Electrifying the transportation sector is a crucial step toward meeting the world’s environmental goals, but electric vehicles still cost considerably more than vehicles with internal combustion engines, which is why the IRA provides tax credits to cover part of the cost of electric vehicles for individuals and businesses.
But, in the case of school buses, the government is ready to cover just about the entire cost of a new e-bus, plus charging equipment. Why?
“It’s a great use case for electrification, because there’s very predictable routing and duty cycles,” says Brittany Barrett, deputy director of the World Resources Institute, which manages the Electric School Bus Initiative. “And these buses sit a majority of the time. They don’t run in the evenings, and large portions of the fleet don’t run in the summer, so they can take advantage of off-peak charging. And they can also act as an additional benefit to school districts to help with resiliency, because these buses are mobile batteries. They can be used to power other things, just like a backup generator could.”
What’s more, school buses are easier to convert en masse, since they are owned and operated as a fleet, unlike individual cars and trucks. And, taken together, school buses are the nation’s largest public transportation fleet, with two-and-a-half times the number of vehicles of all other forms of mass transportation combined, says Emma Heins, policy manager for the Electrification Coalition.
Electrification of the entire U.S. fleet of school buses by 2030 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 million metric tons per year – equivalent to taking 2 million cars off the road, according to the Electric School Bus Initiative. And e-buses, like all electric vehicles or even electric appliances, get even greener as the grid transitions to more renewable energy sources.
But the biggest reason to target school buses as a priority for electrification is, of course, the kids, all 25 million of them who ride a school bus each day.
“The EPA recognizes that diesel school buses produce high volumes of carbon emissions
and pollutants that are harmful to human health, and particularly to young children whose respiratory systems are still developing,” Heins says. “There’s a direct link to asthma cases, absenteeism and other health issues that can be avoided through electric transportation.”
In a 2021 study published in the journal Nature, scientists found that even relatively brief exposure early in life to pollutants, such as those from internal combustion engines, is associated with negative impacts on a child’s immune and cardiovascular systems that can last well into adulthood. And children from low-income families are particularly susceptible, as 70 percent of these children take the bus to school, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
On the positive side of the ledger, school district officials anecdotally say their drivers are excited about the quieter ride provided by an e-bus, as the kids no longer feel compelled to yell over the engine noise of a diesel bus.
And from a school district’s perspective, the prospect of powering their fleets with electricity – generally more cost-stable than current fuel choices, which are subject to the vagaries of geopolitics – is appealing in an age of squeezed school budgets. As are the reduced maintenance costs that are expected with electric vehicles, which have fewer moving parts. Yes, e-buses cost more upfront, but, as Heins says, it’s a free bus.
“For many that were intending to replace a set of buses anyway, they are able to take advantage of an opportunity to replace their old bus with a newer, quieter and cleaner bus for much less,” she says.
The Clean School Bus Program provides $1 billion per year through 2026 to convert school bus fleets to e-buses. The program has already issued two rounds of funding, with applications for the third round closing in February 2024.
“The program has been remarkably successful thus far, exceeding expectations in the first two rounds of funding,” Heins says. “In the first round of rebate funding, there were more than 2,000 electric buses awarded. Due to the overwhelming demand for electric school buses, the EPA nearly doubled its first round of $500 million rebate offerings, awarding $956 million dollars total for low- and zero-emission school buses.”
So far, the EPA has been alternating between funding rounds for the grant program and the rebate program. The rebate program has a much shorter application, and the EPA has selected recipients through a randomized lottery.
For the competitive grant program, which requires a much more involved – some say “daunting” – application, the EPA is prioritizing districts in rural areas and those with a larger portion of students below the federal poverty line. Additionally, no single state is allowed to receive more than 10 percent of the funding, and every state will receive grant funding.
“For the grant round, a full proposal has to be submitted,” Barrett says. “You need partners. You don’t have to have matching funds, but you get more points on your application. You have to have a community engagement plan and a workforce training plan. It’s just a lot more involved, but you can get many more buses. So if you’re a district that’s further along or have a large fleet, the grant could be really great for you to get really moving on your fleet. If you’re a smaller school district with 30 buses, you just want to try out an electric school bus, the rebate program is great for that, because there’s no minimum number of buses you need to get, there’s just a max of 25. For the grant, there is a minimum of 15 buses.”
Both programs are structured so that school districts – or their school bus contractor or dealer – submit the purchase order and the EPA disperses the funds to the payer, meaning there are no up front costs for districts that are ordering their buses now. In the case of Wild Rose, the district’s local school bus dealer put in the order and received the payment, Hayes says.
The EPA has been adjusting the precise dollar amount available as the program has progressed, but the most recent round of rebate funding offered $345,000 for each charger and e-bus combination.
Barrett says the average cost of an e-bus is $395,000. Chargers can run anywhere from $6,000 to $60,000 per unit, depending on the output of the charger. She says the EPA’s expectation is that school districts combine the Clean School Bus Program funding with the $40,000-per-bus tax credit made available from the IRA, which together should cover most of the total cost of converting a fleet. She suggests districts also look into state-level funding and check whether their regional utilities have funding available.
Wild Rose chose to begin by replacing two buses, so it took advantage of the simpler rebate program, which Hayes says covered the entire cost of the buses and two chargers.
“We received the multiple emails the EPA sent out trying to solicit people to apply,” he says. “Then the company we purchase our buses from, they reached out and asked, ‘Hey, do you have any interest in this?’”
Hayes and the Wild Rose administration dug into the details and began researching e-bus range and how the e-buses would handle Wisconsin winters. They analyzed their bus routes, estimating how much the morning routes would deplete from the e-bus batteries and how long it would take to charge them back up before the afternoon routes and other afterschool activities.
Hayes stresses the importance of doing this homework before taking the final decision to a school board. He says there is still plenty of skepticism about electric vehicles, particularly in rural areas and especially in colder climates. He says it was important to have resources in place to be able to answer any questions that arose.
For that step, Heins’s Electrification Coalition and Barrett’s Electric School Bus Initiative are here to help. These organizations have available on their websites extensive – and free – how-to’s and FAQs on the funding program and can put school districts in touch with regional working groups and ambassadors from districts that have already gone through the process.
In the case of Wild Rose, once Hayes was satisfied that the e-buses could handle the bitter cold, he and his team took the decision to the school board, which approved the plan.
His district happens to own its buses, but districts that contract with a private transportation company can also apply for the EPA funding, experts say.
For districts that own their buses, the Clean School Bus Program has requirements for what happens to the old diesel buses. For diesel buses newer than 2011, they can be sold or donated. Buses older than that must be scrapped, with holes drilled through the engine block, Barrett says.
Then there’s the question of electrical capacity and infrastructure. For Wild Rose, a crucial step, Hayes says, was partnering with its local electrical contractor, who had connections with the local utility. Wild Rose had recently built a new bus garage, but it didn’t have sufficient electrical service to power the new e-bus charging equipment. The electrical contractor coordinated with the utility to get sufficient power to the building, and then he set up the electrical infrastructure within the garage and hooked up the e-bus chargers.
Both Barrett and Heins suggest school districts reach out to their utility early in the process.
“That is where we see the most issues in the transition, when school districts don’t alert their utility until the project is already underway or even when the bus has already been ordered and the utility finds a significant holdup for the project,” Heins says.
Other considerations for school districts include training for both drivers and mechanics. Hayes says his district’s local bus dealer has provided training modules available from the e-bus manufacturer.
Hayes and his team do not yet have a concrete timeline for converting the rest of the Wild Rose school bus fleet to electric, but their electrical contractor already set up their bus garage with enough power to someday charge a full fleet of e-buses.
In the meantime, the two e-buses Wild Rose ordered are due to arrive any day, and people in the local community were already eager to see the buses in action during a recent Wisconsin cold snap.
“I had a lot of questions the last couple weeks from people thinking we already have our buses, like, ‘How are they doing?’” Hayes says.
The new Wild Rose e-buses will get their shot. With winter in the Upper Midwest, another chance for sub-zero temperatures is never far away.
Nick Bullock is a freelance writer based in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.