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Electric school buses would be good for Virginia, but it has to be done right

Ivy Main's picture
Publisher Powerforthepeopleva

Ivy Main is a writer, lawyer, and environmental advocate, and volunteers extensively with the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. In addition to lobbying in the Virginia General Assembly for...

  • Member since 2018
  • 160 items added with 365,342 views
  • Feb 15, 2021

Electric Bluebird school bus. Photo by University Railroad via Wikimedia Commons

Transportation electrification is the focus of several bills moving through the General Assembly this winter. Environmental advocates support legislation providing rebates for purchases of electric vehicles and making EVs more readily available, both of which will help develop a market for electric cars. But buses present an even stronger case for electrification because they serve more people of all income levels, and are mostly diesel now. Switching to electric buses, especially school buses, would save money on fuel and improve air quality, especially for children riding them. 

Yet the only electric school bus bill that would have much immediate impact is so deeply flawed and counterproductive that the environmental community is largely united in opposition. SB1380 has passed the Senate and reached the House floor, where it is now encountering headwinds. That opposition contrasts with the broad support offered for HB2118 (Keam), now in Senate Finance, which establishes a public funding mechanism for electric school buses, but unfortunately so far no funds have been appropriated.

I asked Gary Greenwood, the EV Issues Chair for the Sierra Club’s legislative committee, to explain the problems with SB1380 and what amendments it would need to have before Sierra Club could support it. Below is Gary’s response.  

Last week, the House Labor and Commerce committee approved a bill that allows Dominion to deploy an unproven technology, electric school bus batteries used to support the electric grid, and collect the costs from ratepayers.  The bill, SB1380 (Lucas), specifies that these school buses connected to the grid are in the public interest, and therefore ratepayers must pay for them, including the guaranteed profit for the utility. Also of concern is that the bill does not ensure that the buses will always be available when the schools need them for transporting kids.

While vehicle-to-grid technology is not new, it has never been deployed at this scale to support a utility’s electric grid.  SB1380 will allow Dominion to charge ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars for this unproven technology, without a thorough SCC evaluation.

Yes, the environmental community wants to reduce and ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.  And switching from diesel school buses zero-emission electric school buses is an important part of this effort.  We also know that electric school buses will be much healthier for the children that ride them.  “Do it for the kids” is a great sentiment, but a poor excuse to declare unproven technology in the public interest.  Note that Mothers Out Front, a champion of electric school buses in Virginia, also spoke against this bill.

The environmental community supports battery storage as a key part of the transition to renewable energy, and adding battery storage to the grid is needed for utilities to meet VCEA’s storage targets of 250MW by 2025 and 1200MW by 2030.  However, the vehicle-to-grid technology that enables electric buses to support the electrical grid has not been implemented at this scale.  Dominion has begun a pilot program, but it is in its infancy.  

We don’t believe that the General Assembly should declare the deployment of this technology in the public interest.  Rather, an analysis evaluating the benefits and reliability of using school bus batteries to support the grid should be presented in an SCC filing, comparing the costs of bus batteries to dedicated batteries for grid support.

We do need to convert our school bus fleets to electric buses. SB1380 could move us in the right direction if it is amended to guarantee that the buses are always available for transporting students, and to allow for unfettered SCC oversight of costs.

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