America’s fleet of 480,000 school buses drives nearly 3.5 billion miles every year. These diesel buses emit millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the environment, contributing to climate change, and expose children to dangerous pollutants that can affect their health and academic performance. Replacing them with electric options could drastically reduce school transportation’s impact on the environment and generate long-term savings. So why does electricity power less than 1 percent of school buses?
Phillip Burgoyne-Allen (@PBA_DC) is a policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on changing education and life outcomes for underserved children.
The biggest hurdle right now is the price tag: Electric school buses cost more than three times their diesel counterparts, partly because they’ve only been commercially available since 2015. They also use more powerful, more expensive chargers than smaller electric vehicles, meaning districts need to install their own on-site charging stations, which can cost up to $50,000 each. And once school districts invest in electric buses and related infrastructure, they still need to figure out how to efficiently charge their buses and retrain drivers and maintenance workers. There are already growing concerns about a shortage of vehicle technicians, and a recent study found that 97 percent of mechanics are not qualified to work on electric vehicles.
Despite these costs, emissions and fuel use data clearly show that electric buses are the most environmentally friendly vehicle option for school transportation. As my colleague at Bellwether Education Partners Bonnie O’Keefe and I explain in our new policy brief, recent pilot programs in California, Massachusetts, and New York show a path forward to turning the yellow school bus green. We found three key lessons for education leaders and policymakers considering advocating for and investing in electric school buses:
Electric school buses can lead to long-term savings. They have significantly lower fuel and maintenance costs than diesel buses. For example, Twin Rivers Unified School District in Northern California became the country’s first school district to deploy electric buses in 2017, and it maintains the country’s largest electric school bus fleet. Electricity costs Twin Rivers roughly 80 percent less per mile than diesel fuel, and their electric buses cost 60–80 percent less to maintain than their other buses.
New technologies may help realize further savings and environmental benefits. For example, New York’s White Plains City School District began piloting five electric buses in 2018, and has started to test vehicle-to-grid technology. This system allows electric buses to store excess power and deliver it back to the local power grid (rather than only draw a charge from it). Because these buses sit idle for most of the day, when school is out of session, their batteries can store electricity when demand is low and discharge it at peak hours. White Plains’ local utility company is using the buses’ batteries to help power the electrical grid in the summer, when utilities are at peak use due to air conditioning needs. These vehicle-to-grid capabilities are still being tested, but they have the potential to save districts money by reducing utility costs. Researchers from the University of Delaware estimated that using a vehicle-to-grid-capable electric bus instead of a diesel bus could save a district $6,000 per seat, or some $230,000 per bus, over a 14-year lifespan (the maximum allowed in Delaware).
Poor implementation can constrain environmental benefits. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts began piloting three electric buses across three districts in 2016. An evaluation of the program last year found that the buses’ energy costs were 63 percent higher than necessary. The electric buses also emitted 57 percent fewer greenhouse gases than a comparable diesel bus—a substantial reduction, but 13 percent less than expected.