Electric school buses offer kids a cleaner, but more expensive, route to class

Electric school buses offer kids a cleaner, but more expensive, route to class

BEVERLY, Mass. “It’s a gray November morning, and we’re on a long yellow school bus.

The bus bounces around the patched streets of this Boston suburb in a way that would be familiar to anyone who has ever taken the bus to class. But the bus is quiet – and not just because there are no children on board.

This school bus is electric.

Currently, only a tiny fraction of the approximately 480,000 school buses in America are battery powered. Most still use gasoline or diesel engines, as they have for decades. But thanks to rapidly maturing electric vehicle technology — and new incentives available under the bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Curbing Inflation Act — electric school buses are expected to become much more common in the coming years. the next decade.

“It’s like a huge go-kart,” said the bus driver that day in November, who has been driving mostly gas-powered school buses for more than three decades. “When you accelerate, you move. When you stop accelerating, you stop. And you hear no sound.”

“Driving a diesel bus is not like driving a go-kart,” she said.

Greener pastures

Environmental activists have been working for years to try to replace diesel and petrol school buses with new electric models. Until recently, they faced great challenges: only a few companies were making all-electric school buses, prices were very high, and the need for new “refueling” and maintenance infrastructure to replace the tried and tested diesel s proved too daunting for many schools. officials.

It’s starting to change. Over the past couple of years, more and more companies – including long-established school bus manufacturers – have started manufacturing electric school buses, government subsidies have increased, and regulators and non-profit organizations nonprofits have worked to educate school districts, utilities, and the general public about the benefits.

But it’s not like selling electric vehicles to drivers. School districts must navigate a confusing array of subsidies and restrictions – and deal with the inconvenient fact that currently a new electric bus costs significantly more than a traditional diesel bus (in fact, three to four times more).

It’s hard to create a battery-electric version of a long-haul truck, like starting an electric vehicle Nicholas works, because the batteries needed to provide the distance weigh a lot and take hours to recharge.

But the case of a school bus – which only needs a limited mileage range and has plenty of idle time to recharge – is much simpler. And the advantages over traditional buses are clear.

They’re much better, and their savings are much bigger once you actually take them to the depot.

Sue Gander

Director of the World Resources Institute

Not only do electric school buses, or ESBs, help the environment – by not expelling diesel fumes or other emissions – they are also better for the children they transport, especially those with medical conditions. chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

Like other electric vehicles, ESBs are also likely to have lower maintenance costs over time than their internal combustion counterparts.

Additionally, large bus batteries can store and provide energy to power buildings and other devices, whether temporarily in an emergency or as part of a broader renewable energy strategy.

Driving up costs

All of these benefits come at a price, however.

ESBs are expensive: battery-electric versions of small “Type A” school buses cost around $250,000, compared to $50,000 to $65,000 for diesel; Full-size “Type C” or “Type D” buses can cost between $320,000 and $440,000 in electric form, compared to around $100,000 for diesel.

“They’re much better and their savings are much bigger once you actually get them to the depot,” Sue Gander, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, told CNBC in a recent interview. . “But the upstream is such that, without [government] incentives, you can’t break even [in comparison to diesel buses].”

Gander leads the World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative, a project funded in part by the Bezos Earth Fund created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The initiative works with school authorities, utility companies and ESB manufacturers to try to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission school buses.

“We think for the next three or four years, as the costs come down, as the scale goes up, we’re going to have to put those incentives in place to make the numbers work,” she said.

And like other electric vehicles, ESBs will require new infrastructure: At a minimum, a school district or bus operator will need to install chargers and retrain its mechanics to maintain the battery-electric drivetrains and control systems of new buses.

A Thomas Built electric school bus in Beverly, Massachusetts.

John Rosever | CNBC

For small school districts and those in low-income areas, the costs and challenges can be daunting.

Duncan McIntyre is trying to make it easy, or at least easier, for school districts to go electric. After years in the solar energy business, he founded a company, Highland Fleets, which aims to make the switch to electric buses simple and affordable for school districts and local governments across the country.

“You have more expensive equipment, but it works much cheaper,” he said, noting that – as with other electric vehicles – the costs of charging and maintaining an electric school bus are considerably lower. to those of petrol or diesel buses.

The last thing, he says, “that everyone forgets is that these bus batteries can send power back to the grid to meet peak demand. And that’s an opportunity for the bus market.” ‘energy to create additional income’.

Government incentives

The bipartisan infrastructure law passed late last year includes $5 billion in grants for low- and zero-emission school buses over the next five years.

The EPA, responsible for administering these grants, said in September that about 2,000 US school districts had already applied for the grants, with more than 90% of those applications requesting electric buses. (The others were seeking subsidies for low-emission buses powered by propane or compressed natural gas, the agency said.)

All of these requests, which together represent nearly $4 billion in grants, will not be approved immediately. The EPA awarded about $1 billion in funds in October, prioritizing low-income, rural and tribal communities. It plans to distribute an additional $1 billion in 2023.

California offers grants at the state level, through its Air Resources Board, of up to $235,000 per bus, plus an additional $30,000 per bus for charging equipment. The agency has set aside $122 million for the program this year.

Colorado has made available $65 million in funding for a similar program. And New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Maine have all decided to implement similar programs this year, with New York being the first to aim for a fleet of all-electric school buses by 2035.

The money helps, but Gander said school districts still need to think about all aspects of electrification.

“It’s really about supporting school districts, helping them understand where electric buses fit into my fleet right now? And how can I plan to keep adding them to my fleet as I go along?” ?” said Gander. “How can I develop the infrastructure? How can I access the finance and financing that exists? And how can I involve the community in this process? »

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