As schools around the U.S. start to reopen, you’ll find more than 25 million students racing to get ready to catch the bus each morning. More than half of all school children ride to class each morning in those big, yellow, smoke-belching buses, long a familiar sight on American roadways.
The vast majority of the nation’s roughly 500,000 school buses run on diesel. But a growing number are going green. As many as 415 school districts were planning to have about 12,000 all-electric buses in operation by the end of this year, according to government data. And the number is expected to grow substantially in the coming years, with at least one state planning to switch entirely to electric buses starting in 2027.
And, at a federal level, the Biden administration is putting money behind such moves. The Environmental Protection Agency just launched a program offering $250 million in rebates for those schools that purchase electric buses.
Another $4.5 billion to promote the switch from diesel to electric will begin to be available during the next four years as part of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program.
Transportation industry experts also note going electric can provide substantial cost savings — as much as $11,000 annually in reduced fuel and maintenance for each bus.
“I believe the evidence makes clear that it will more than pay off over the long term in health and economic benefits, and I am encouraged to see public and private investments moving in that direction,” Andrea Marpillero-Colomina, an adjunct lecturer at the New School, wrote in the education website “The Conversation.”
School officials around the country are looking into a variety of ways to shift away from diesel — which has been linked to a variety of adverse health problems. That includes alternatives like propane and compressed natural gas, or CNG. They’re offered by two of the largest providers of school buses, Blue Bird and Thomas Built.
NY State takes the lead
More than 2,000 school buses in the state of New York were converted to CNG during the last two decades. But state lawmakers shifted direction earlier this year. In April, Governor Kathy Hochul reached an agreement with the New York legislature to switch all 50,000 state school buses to electric by 2035. The shift begins in 2027 when new legislation will require all new school buses purchased in the state use electric-drive technology.
“This plan makes New York the first state in the country to commit to fully electrifying its school bus fleet and sets a clear benchmark for other states looking to protect kids’ health,” Justin Balik, the senior manager for transportation electrification at the World Resources Institute, said in a statement.
The transportation industry has begun a broad shift to electric propulsion, with automakers worldwide laying out plans to spend more than $500 billion through the end of this decade, according to consultancy AlixPartners.
While the spotlight has focused on the retail vehicle market, there’s been an accelerating switch in commercial transportation as well. Amazon alone ordered more than 100,000 all-electric delivery vans for its U.S. fleet, with companies including UPS, FedEx and shopping giant Walmart following suit.
A billion-dollar cost advantage
One of the big drivers is the cost of energy and maintenance. On a per-mile basis, it can run less than half as much to charge up a bus compared to using diesel or gasoline. And with no tune-ups or oil changes, that’s another big advantage.
All told, it costs about 14 cents per mile to operate an electric school bus, according to a report by Forbes, compared to 49 cents for a diesel bus. With U.S. school buses collectively logging about 3.4 billion miles annually, that could add up to a yearly savings of over $1 billion — never mind the environmental and health benefits.
A study by Columbia University estimated replacing a single diesel bus with an EV model has a $150,000 annual benefit in terms of health. The American Lung Association, noted Forbes, estimates the health benefits of completely switching over New York’s buses would have a $68.2 billion benefit in terms of public health. The studies consider things like asthma, allergies and premature cancers.
New incentive programs accelerate the switch
The new incentive programs launched by the federal government could accelerate the shift, experts believe. In some cases, school districts will be able to have 100% of the purchase price covered by the EPA — with the government putting a priority on those serving high-need, tribal, rural and low-income students.
Several states have launched their own incentive programs. In California, school districts can claim as much as $220,000 per bus, with an extra $15,000 for those used in disadvantaged communities.
As with electric passenger vehicles, there are relatively few battery-powered school buses on the road right now, but the pace is set to accelerate rapidly. In California, the state with the most “ESBs,” there were 526 in use in mid-2021, according to the World Resources Institute, with the number doubling to around 1,022 now. Maryland is second on the list, with 337 electric school buses, and Florida third, with 218.
Manufacturers open new EV bus plants
To meet the growing demand, Blue Bird and other manufacturers are expanding EV bus production. New plants in both Illinois and West Virginia were scheduled to open this year — in the process creating more than 2,000 new jobs.
Blue Bird recently estimated it could tap into a $150 billion dollar manufacturing opportunity in the coming decade.
With California and New York both laying out plans to go all-electric, other states are expected to follow. And that could mean exponential growth, experts forecast, through the rest of this decade.