Ultimate Resource Discussing The Electrification Of The World’s School Buses
The Next EV Push Is An Overhaul Of The Iconic American School Bus. Ultimate Resource Discussing The Electrification Of The World’s School Buses
US school districts are eager to electrify their bus fleets, and billions of dollars in new funding is getting them started.
The American school bus of the future won’t differ too much from its current iconic design: The wheels will still go round and round, the horn will go honk, honk, honk, and the wipers will swish, swish, swish.
But if the transition from fossil fuels continues to accelerate, the engine won’t go vroom, vroom, vroom. It won’t make much noise at all, because it will be electric.
Most school buses today run on diesel. The climate footprint of a diesel school bus is about 3.3 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per mile, more than double the per-mile footprint (roughly 1.5 pounds of CO2e) for a bus powered on the average US electric grid, according to Argonne National Laboratory.
If a large share of the American school bus fleet — the largest mass transportation system in the country — electrifies, that would translate to a significant emissions cut.
What’s more, diesel exhaust is carcinogenic. And specific components of the tailpipe fumes, such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx), are linked to asthma and other respiratory problems in children.
“This is really a health issue,” says Almeta Cooper, national manager for health equity with the environmental group Moms Clean Air Force. But with almost a half-million school buses on the road daily, “it’s so much part of the scenery, people don’t even realize,” she says.
That’s why Cooper and other parent activists have spent recent years rallying behind the electric bus. Now, she says, the technology is finally starting to gain traction.
In 2016 there were only 10 electric school buses “committed” — meaning they’d been awarded, ordered or delivered, or were in operation — across the US, according to the global research nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI).
By December 2022, that number had jumped to 5,612. (That tally doesn’t include a partnership between bus dealer Midwest Transit Equipment Inc. and electric power system maker SEA Electric LLC to retrofit 10,000 diesel buses into electric; so far, only 22 of these buses have been ordered.)
Those numbers account for the Environmental Protection Agency awarding more than $900 million in funding for nondiesel vehicles, mainly electric ones, through its new Clean School Bus Program.
Even more federal support for school bus electrification is coming online this year, thanks to the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
Why School Buses Are Going Electric
It helps that school buses are almost perfect for electrification. The summer break means buses are generally not pulling power from the grid during the hottest months of the year, when electricity demand can peak.
In fact, bus batteries could potentially be a resource to send electricity back to the grid.
The range of a fully charged electric bus is upwards of 100 miles, covering most routes. There’s also a natural window to charge during the day while kids are in class.
Take, for example, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), a large suburban district in Maryland that currently operates 86 electric buses. On a typical day, an electric bus picks up students and drops them off at one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
Occasionally, the buses take trips during the school day to nearby destinations. Although longer field trips pose a problem for range, a hypothetical 13-mile round trip to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington shouldn’t drain the battery.
But if a bus needs to recharge during the day, it usually only recharges up to whatever it needs to finish the day’s routes.
Then, from 2 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. the bus picks up students from the schools and drops them off at home. Typically, morning and afternoon routes can be completed on a single charge.
In colder months, the bus has less mileage per charge because heating the bus saps energy. Consistent high-speed driving can also deplete a battery more quickly.
At the end of the day, the bus returns to the bus depot to fully recharge overnight. Recharging to 100% takes about four hours, depending on how much charge is left.
For now, though, electric buses still make up less than 1% of the school buses on US roads. If this were a board game, they’d be stuck at “go.”
But increased demand and funding, technological innovation and a streamlined supply chain promise to bring change, says Katherine Roboff, a senior manager for communications and engagement with WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative.
“We’ll be off of ‘go’ pretty soon,” she says. “There’s definitely good progress happening.”
Most of the school districts ordering electric buses today are starting small, with purchases of one, two or a handful of buses.
“What you’ve got at the moment is many, many districts and users are putting their toes in the water,” says Kevin Bangston, president and chief executive officer of the school bus maker Thomas Built Buses Inc. in High Point, North Carolina. “They are running a couple of buses, so they need a charger or two.”
Not so for Montgomery County Public Schools, which plans to operate another 240 electric buses by the end of 2024 on top of the 86 already on the road.
“We’re the sixth-largest school bus fleet in the US,” says Gregory Salois, director of the district’s department of transportation. “If you are able to do this successfully, it would be quite the advertisement for others to do it.”
The more electric buses a district has, the more complicated it is to deploy them, because of the additional infrastructure and support needed.
The Maryland school district partners with Highland Electric Fleets, a startup backed by large investors that purchases the buses, oversees charging and related infrastructure and pays all the utility costs.
According to Salois, who started his job after the electrification process began, Highland proposed a package that “would basically be budget neutral for Montgomery County.”
The county is paying Highland the equivalent of a diesel bus for each electric one. At the time, a diesel bus cost $160,000.
An electric bus cost $420,000, with an additional $45,000 to $50,000 for supporting infrastructure. (Although prices have since come down and are projected to keep dropping, they will still be much higher than diesel for years.)
Only a few miles from Montgomery County, another large district, Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, is following a different model, getting support from the local utility Dominion Energy Inc. to help pay for buses and install and maintain charging infrastructure.
Another way to reduce the cost burden of electrification is with a “repower” bus, a fossil fuel bus that’s retrofitted to be electric and costs a fraction of a new electric bus. A repower bus “can be as low as $100,000 or as high as $175,000,” says Michael Backman, vice president for sales and marketing for the repower business Unique Electric Solutions Inc. in Holbrook, New York. A downside of retrofitted buses: They may not have the same lifespan as new ones.
Federal Funding Revs Up a Bumpy Transition
There’s more financial support now for school districts to make the switch. It began with California, New York and other states offering incentives to help them shoulder the cost of transitioning to cleaner buses, including propane, natural gas and electric models. Now the federal government is stepping up, too.
As part of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act program and the American Rescue Plan, the EPA funded the replacement of 53 diesel buses with electric ones between 2019 and 2021.
But the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021 changed everything. With the law’s funding, the EPA introduced the Clean School Bus Program. It has a $5 billion budget through fiscal year 2026, making it the largest pot of money for low- and zero-emission buses.
When the agency’s first round of funding opened last spring, the response from district officials was overwhelming, says EPA Transportation and Climate Division Director Karl Simon.
“We got $4 billion worth of applications when we rolled out the rebates last year, for a $500 million offering,” he says. So far the EPA has given out more than $900 million, almost double the proposed amount. Most of that money went toward electric buses, as opposed to propane or gas ones.
The EPA plans to offer roughly $1 billion every year until the money runs out, Simon says. Moreover, the Inflation Reduction Act offers additional millions through various programs that may be used to fund school bus electrification.
Although Montgomery County entered into its Highland contract before the EPA’s program even started, officials there have seen the impact it’s had on demand.
Salois says the county has gotten calls from school officials in Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia asking for advice on how to go electric. He’s an electric bus advocate, but he’s also honest with anyone who asks, saying the transition is and will continue to be bumpy.
In an ideal world, the driver of an electric school bus does three routes in the morning for elementary, middle school and high school students, takes a midday break to charge, and then completes the afternoon routes before returning the bus to the depot to charge overnight.
But in Montgomery County, almost two-thirds of the buses have duties in the middle of the day, such as field trips or shuttling kids between schools to attend special programs, Salois says. “Usually we cannot put an electric bus on a midday schedule,” he says, adding that he expects this to change in the future as the range of electric buses increases.
Streamlining coordination with utilities and finding more money to help pay for the infrastructure that goes along with the buses are crucial to expanding the nation’s electric school bus fleet, says Sue Gander, director of WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative. So, too, will be some technological innovation when it comes to accelerating charging speed and expanding bus range.
In another clear sign that electric buses are here to stay, all three of the largest US school bus makers — Blue Bird Corp., Thomas Built Buses and Navistar International Corp.’s IC Bus — started producing electric models in recent years.
All three companies say that demand for their electric buses is only growing and that they’ve increased their staff devoted to this side of the business.
But though Blue Bird expects sales of electric buses to grow to more than 40% of the school bus business in the long term, Navistar’s IC says its modeling indicates electric buses will be the “primary choice of the industry by 2029.”
Bangston of Thomas Built Buses sees the future as electric, full stop. “The clear winner is an absolute zero-emissions vehicle,” he says. “This industry is going electric, in my mind.”
Colombia’s Women-Led Electric Bus Fleet Is Reshaping Bogotá’s Public Transit
The project is a bet that public investment can help change perceptions of mass transportation.
At 15 years old and pregnant with her first child, Diana Ruiz started working on Bogotá’s buses selling peanuts and candy, a sort of entry-level role in the city’s hardscrabble informal economy.
Fourteen years later she now drives a bus for the city’s public bus company La Rolita, an all-electric fleet with a focus on gender equity that began operating last year.
Created as part of Mayor Claudia Lopez’s development plan for the Colombian capital, the project is a bet that public investment can help shift perceptions of mass transportation.
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“This has been a great opportunity, and it has done a lot to change people’s view of the public transportation system in Bogotá,” Ruiz said from La Rolita’s depot in the hilly working-class district of Ciudad Bolivar on the city’s south side.
Women make up 48% of drivers on the new fleet of buses, but represent just 2.8% of the city’s overall public bus drivers, according to March data from TransMilenio, which manages the city’s public transportation system.
These kinds of opportunities to enter the formal economy are seldom available to many working class Bogotanos — especially women — who often flounder in the informal economy, she said. More than half of Colombia’s workforce is made up of informal workers.
The Ciudad Bolivar neighborhood went more than 10 years without formal public transit after a series of deserted auctions, according to La Rolita’s general manager, Carolina Martinez, who attributed the disinterest to fare evasion and concerns about public safety.
So part of the company’s challenge has been winning over riders who have become disillusioned with public transport: A 2022 annual poll by Bogotá Como Vamos found that 41% of people were unsatisfied with the city’s flagship bus rapid transit system.
Bogotá last year had the 10th worst traffic congestion worldwide and ranked second in Latin America behind Lima, according to TomTom data.
That’s where La Rolita’s community outreach and focus on quality of service comes in, Martinez said. Public transportation operators need to meet the needs of their riders, who will in turn pitch in, she said.
As part of its pact with riders, La Rolita was quick to comply when the community asked for one of the routes to be modified, Martinez said.
The more expensive electric buses — whose electrical system, scant fluids and regenerative braking mean minimal maintenance — cost less to keep running and cause fewer service disruptions, she said.
By going longer without breaking down, La Rolita can hew more closely to its timetables, helping meet its commitments to the public.
La Rolita’s 195 electric buses, manufactured by the Warren Buffett-backed Chinese company BYD, are accessible for passengers with disabilities and offer Wi-Fi, USB outlets, screens for public service and route information and security cameras.
There are currently 11 routes covering 210 miles (338 kilometers) of the city, though Lopez has already said the project will expand to operate along a 14-mile stretch of the iconic Carrera Septima.
The vehicles are charged nightly using certified clean energy from Enel Colombia, which also has a 20% stake in La Rolita. The other 80% is owned by the city, making it the first mostly public operator in decades.
La Rolita offers transparency by being an “open book” on costs, as Martinez explains it. Too many private operators don’t share this information, making it impossible to know where efficiencies could be gained, she said.
The city’s TransMilenio system, known for its namesake bus rapid-transit system, is made up almost entirely of private companies that have contracts to operate public bus routes.
Disrupting Traditional Gender Roles
La Rolita’s women drivers said that their traditional roles as caregivers make them more sensitive to the needs of riders going about their days in the traffic-clogged metropolis of 8 million people.
Melissa Diaz, who’s been driving for La Rolita since it launched last September, said that when a person with disabilities or someone with children gets on the bus, she and her colleagues are more likely to take greater care.
The company takes its name from the diminutive form of the word rola, which refers to a woman from Bogotá.
Her coworker Paola Perez told a story about a male passenger who was talking to his companion about how driving a bus is men’s work.
When the bus arrived at his stop, the passenger turned to congratulate the driver only to find that it had been a woman. “My pleasure, my pleasure,” Perez responded.
“It’s not that this is something for men,” Lorena Rodriguez said about driving a bus. “But that society made it this way.”
In addition to advancing gender equity in the city’s male-dominated public transit field, the company’s focus on electric mobility is also intended to boost the city’s commitment to combat climate change.
The World Wildlife Fund named Bogotá a global winner of its sustainability challenge in 2022, citing Lopez’s climate action plan, which seeks to reduce the city’s emissions by 15% from 2020 through next year and by 50% as of 2030. The aim is to reach carbon neutrality in 2050.
As part of the plan, half of Bogotá’s bus rapid transit fleet should be electric by 2030 and the entire fleet by 2050. La Rolita will also take over operations of the city’s public cable car and is developing a pilot plan for electric school buses.
“It’s a very good thing that one of the operators — the public operator — is placing so much emphasis on quality of service, treating people well, the fulfillment of expectations,” said Dario Hidalgo, a former executive at TransMilenio and a transportation and logistics professor at Bogotá’s Javeriana University.
Not everyone is so keen. Some private operators joined together to challenge La Rolita’s launch in court, arguing that the city failed to conduct a study proving the need for it. La Rolita was allowed to start operating but awaits another ruling, which could come at any moment.
La Rolita has paid for its drivers, many of whom are single mothers, to upgrade their driving licenses, and enables employees to access social security, which includes a pension.
Drivers make 1.7 million pesos ($376) monthly, compared to the national monthly minimum wage of 1.16 million pesos. While employees can use a public daycare center for local residents, La Rolita hopes to build one on-site, Martinez said.
For Ruiz, driving La Rolita’s electric buses has been a “lifesaver.”
“I feel that I now occupy a more important place in society, that I can contribute something and that what I do is very important,” Ruiz said.
In The Race To Electrification, The Humble Bus Is In The Lead
By 2032, about half of the world’s buses will be battery-powered, a milestone that will take an additional decade for electric cars.
All over the world, buses are quickly and quietly going electric.
By 2032, about half of the world’s buses will be entirely battery-powered, as will almost three out of four buses sold, according to BloombergNEF’s seventh annual Electric Vehicle Outlook.
It will take another 10 years for the global fleet of passenger vehicles to reach 50% EVs, and commercial trucking is decades away from that threshold. Even scooters are moving slowly on the road to electron-driven transport.
“In 2022, we saw more bus orders across different regions,” says BNEF analyst Maynie Yun Ling Yang, “Previously, it was more of a China story.”
Some of that momentum has to do with the nature of bus fleets: Electrifying just one of them can put thousands of fossil-fuel buses out of commission. Berlin, for instance, is in the process of swapping its 1,600 diesel buses for 1,700 electric versions by 2030.
New York City aims to transition its 5,800-bus fleet to all electric vehicles by 2040. US school districts, meanwhile, had about 1,000 electric buses by the end of last year and another 4,000 on the way.
The electric-bus takeover also speaks to a happy marriage between bus routes and battery-powered vehicles. As it turns out, EVs excel when they don’t have to zoom down an interstate at 70 miles per hour or haul several tons of Amazon boxes.
Slowly but surely poking through a city on a set schedule — with a bunch of patient people as cargo — is a near-perfect use case.
There’s little risk of speed curtailing range, and the batteries can charge up ever so slightly each time the bus wheezes to a stop.
Even better, most bus fleets retire to a centralized depot, which streamlines the logistics of charging. Their batteries can be topped up at home base, on a dedicated bank of power, rather than relying on disparate and often janky public charging networks.
Yang says that, in many places, electric buses are already as cheap to operate as diesel-burning alternatives. Not only do fleets forestall fuel costs, but maintenance is minimal. Electric motors don’t require oil changes, air filters or spark plugs, for example.
The market is also largely driven by municipal governments, who are increasingly considering health and environmental impacts in their purchasing decisions.
The climate footprint of a diesel school bus is about 3.3 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per mile, more than double the per-mile footprint for a bus powered on the average US electric grid, according to Argonne National Laboratory.
Diesel engines also emit a greater share of nitrous-oxide, a particularly insidious greenhouse gas linked to cancer and asthma.
Electric buses “fit into general government policies to make cities cleaner,” Yang says. “And if a government decides to procure electric buses, they can just do it.”
A Federal Push To Electrify The U.S.’s School Buses Started With Philanthropy
Andrew Steer was president and CEO of the nonprofit World Resources Institute when he proposed to Jeff Bezos in 2020 that the billionaire support an effort to electrify the nation’s fleet of largely diesel-powered school buses.
Steer’s argument—and one WRI and others later brought to lawmakers in Congress—is that diesel fuel, often burned inefficiently in aging buses, is harming the health of children, particularly those in low-income communities.
“The fumes come into the cabin where the children are and they breathe air that quite frankly is as bad as anything,” says Steer, who more than a year later was named president and CEO of Bezos’s US$10 billion Earth Fund.
But that’s not the whole argument. Electrifying the nearly 490,000 school buses in the U.S. will have an enormous benefit on the climate—as these cleaner vehicles produce the lowest level of greenhouse gas emissions of any bus alternative.
“There’s also an economic story here as well,” Steer says. “As of two years ago, 96% of all the electric buses in the world were built in China. Wouldn’t it be good to share that massive industry with our own workers here in the Midwest or wherever they happen to be?”
Another economic benefit? The batteries in electric buses can be used to conserve energy in the summer, allowing power to be put back on the grid as needed, Steer says.
“Five years ago you basically couldn’t find an electric bus to buy in this country. By 2035, it will be hard to find a school bus that isn’t electric on the market.” — Andrew Steer, president and CEO, Bezos Earth Fund
The proposition attracted Bezos because, as Steer recalls him saying, “it captures the whole idea of changing a system, and the multi-faceted benefits that really good investments make.”
In November 2020, the Earth Fund boosted local, state, and national efforts to electrify the school bus fleet with a five-year, US$37.5 million grant to WRI, in partnership with Chispa (an arm of the League of Conservation Voters focused on Latinx communities and people of color), Mothers Out Front, the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., and other organizations throughout the U.S.
That funding allowed WRI and others to get the word out to local, state, and federal lawmakers on the benefits of electric school buses to health—especially for children living in low-income neighborhoods—and to the climate.
It also supported WRI’s partnerships with school districts, communities, environmental justice organizations, utilities, manufacturers, and policymakers aimed at electrifying the nation’s school bus fleet.
Those efforts helped lead to an estimated US$5 billion in federal funding through the infrastructure legislation passed in 2021, and an estimated US$1 billion from the Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle Program—established in the federal Inflation Reduction Act passed last year.
The latter funding also includes relevant IRA tax credits, such as the Qualified Commercial Vehicle Tax Credit and the Alternative Fuel Refueling Tax Credit.
The work of WRI and several other nonprofits—including the Alliance for Electric School Buses (a multi-organization effort)—also influenced the passage of zero-emission school bus transition mandates in five states, beginning with New York in 2022, in addition to other state efforts that together have affected 20% of buses nationwide and 16% of school-bus riders, according to WRI.
The total that’s been made available for school bus electrification—from federal and state funding sources—is estimated to have reached about US$9 billion, WRI figures show.
The Earth Fund and other donor organizations, including the Energy Foundation—which is backed by the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the McKnight Foundation, among many others—are not buying the buses—which in 2022 cost about US$350,000 compared to US$103,000 for a diesel version, according to WRI—but their philanthropic dollars have catalyzed the electric transition.
“We would not be where we are today without having the [financial] support that has helped support the advocacy on the ground at the local level, and then increasingly at the state level and the federal level to be at this point,” says Sue Gander, director of WRI’s electric school bus initiative.
A key focus for WRI is facilitating all the various “systems change” aspects required to make electrification viable for school districts by, for instance, providing technical assistance, in addition to collaborating with manufacturers and working with electric utilities to provide the charging infrastructure, among other strategies.
“It’s great to get all this funding and bring in the school districts and they get excited about it, but it’s a really different story to then actually get the buses, figure out where the charging goes, figure out the routes and help with that part of things too,” Gander says.
Philanthropy’s role is in supporting all the elements of this “jigsaw puzzle” that is required to make change happen, according to Steer.
“It turns out that to make a sort of a movement like this possible, you need different players to come into the equation,” he says.
That means working with school boards, manufacturers, financial institutions (to finance the expansion of manufacturing capacity), in addition to parents and politicians, he says. “The federal government can’t do that.”
Today, school districts have 5,985 “committed” electric school buses, meaning vehicles that have either been awarded, ordered, delivered, or are operating as of Aug. 1, according to WRI.
Though that represents only 1.2% of the 489,186 buses on the road, it’s up from 3,478 in 2022, before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offered nearly US$1 billion in rebates to replace existing school buses with funding allocated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021, WRI data shows.
In September, the EPA announced another US$500 million of this funding was available for rebates. A goal is to deliver funding consistent with the Biden Administration’s Justice40 initiative, which aims to ensure disadvantaged communities receive at least 40% of the benefits of certain federal investments.
Getting the equity piece right is a major focus for WRI in particular, Gander says. So far, the organization’s analysis shows committed electric buses are mostly reaching underserved districts.
Ensuring this happens is a priority because it’s “kids from communities of color, from low-income communities, from rural areas, and also children with disabilities that rely on school buses more so than their peers,” Gander says.
The Earth Fund’s donation to WRI and others was significant in kicking the impact of the existing movement “up quite a notch or two,” she says, but the fact it was a five-year grant was also important.
“It’s great to get the funding, but it’s even better if it can be a stream of funding where you’re not like immediately thinking about how do I keep this going?”
That funding stream is critical because “we’re still in early days,” Gander says. A big challenge is ensuring that the infrastructure is built to support the buses in addition to other municipal vehicles, in rural areas in addition to cities.
“One could say, and not be wrong, that the hill is getting a bit steeper. So it’s really critical to continue the incentives.”
Steer is optimistic. “Five years ago you basically couldn’t find an electric bus to buy in this country. By 2035, it will be hard to find a school bus that isn’t electric on the market,” he says.
The transition may seem expensive, until the cost of the buses come down, the infrastructure is built, etc. “But the more you look at it, it’s sort of irresistible and unstoppable,” Steer says. “What we want to do is continue to be part of that.”