The $150 Billion Road Electric School Buses Can Ride To Create American Jobs And Protect Kids’ Health
- May 11, 2022 5:29 pm GMT
Anyone who has gone to school in the United States remembers the smell of diesel exhaust from riding the iconic yellow school bus, but few realize the danger of breathing those fumes. Thankfully, our children can ride pollution-free, all-electric buses that don’t cause asthma or harm brain development – and electrifying our school bus fleet is worth billions to American manufacturing.
The electric school bus transition is accelerating across the country. California’s Modesto City Schools recently placed the largest electric bus order in history, Boston is switching its 700 school buses to electric, and New York just passed a bill to electrify its statewide school bus fleet by 2035. And more schools can plug in thanks to the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s (IIJA) $5 billion for clean school buses.
The school bus is a uniquely North American phenomenon, spurring home-grown manufacturing and new jobs. New manufacturing plants are opening this year in Illinois, adding 1,400 jobs, and in West Virginia’s coal country, adding 900 jobs.
But just 1% of existing school buses are electric, and U.S.-based school bus manufacturer Blue Bird estimates transitioning the entire American fleet represents a $150 billion dollar manufacturing opportunity. Meanwhile, school districts are spending just 14 cents per mile on their electric buses compared to 49 cents per mile for diesel buses.
We have the technology to electrify America’s school buses, but delivering all the health and economic benefits of electric buses requires bolder state goals, dedicated funding, and smart planning.
Protecting our kids is a no brainer
Every morning, nearly half a million school buses transport about 20 million children to school, traveling about 3.4 billion miles per year. Most of these buses run on diesel, exposing children to toxic air pollution inside the bus for the ride’s duration.
Diesel-powered vehicles like school buses emit high levels of dangerous particulate matter, which impedes brain development and is associated with lower academic achievement in children. Ironically, children’s ability to process and remember information may be harmed on the way to school if traveling on a diesel bus.
Diesel engines also emit greater amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx) at slower speeds, like school buses do when driving through neighborhoods. Regular NOx exposure causes asthma in children, while short-term exposure can trigger asthma attacks, a leading cause of missed school days for children that disproportionately impacts children of color.
Columbia University found a single electric bus reduces human health costs by $150,000 per year, while the American Lung Association estimates transitioning all of New York’s buses to clean vehicles would generate $68.2 billion in public health benefits.
Add it up and protecting our children as they travel to school is a no brainer.
From American icon to American jobs engine
Electric bus investments can also create hundreds of thousands of local in domestic electric vehicle and battery manufacturing. Greater demand creates a natural incentive to build electric buses here, and since they are paid for with public funds, “American-made” requirements don’t run afoul of international trade agreements.
“The U.S. is home to much of the existing manufacturing capacity and where we are seeing the growth of electric school buses, their supply chain and the related electric repower industry, with over 20 companies already established in 14 states,” said Sue Gander of World Resources Institute. “And more than 2,500 jobs have been announced by companies in the ESB segment.”
Advanced Energy Economy (AEE) estimates that every $1 spent on clean buses stimulates $2.6 in private investment, and finds the IIJA's $5 billion for cleaner school buses will add $6 billion to our economy and create 46,000 job-years.
Experts predict additional public investments in clean buses for kids could create a tipping point for electrifying all medium- and heavy-duty transportation in the U.S., bolstering health and economic benefits.
Realizing major savings for schools
We all know public school districts manage tight budgets. While electric buses are projected to reach upfront price parity with diesel buses by the end of this decade, they can still cost two to three times more than similar diesel buses.
But electric school buses cost much less to own thanks to lower fuel and maintenance costs, saving between $4,000 to $11,000 per bus per year – Modesto expects to save $250,000 annually on fuel costs once their electric buses take over all routes. Smart state policy can help school districts realize major savings over each vehicle’s life.
California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project offers school districts up to $220,000 per bus, plus an additional $15,000 per bus if operated in a disadvantaged community. Meanwhile, the California School Bus Replacement Program offers $94 million for school districts to replace the oldest, most-polluting vehicles with all-electric buses.
The state has also now set a target for all new trucks and buses in California to be electric by 2045 with its Advanced Clean Trucks Rule, starting with zero-emission sales requirements for manufacturers in 2024, and six states have followed suit.
California may have led the way, but New York is now taking the lead. Gov. Hochul has committed to electrifying the state’s 47,000 school buses by 2035, and the state legislature has authorized $500 million in grants for new electric school buses through the environmental bond act, which goes to voters for approval in November.
“New York is now on track to be the fastest state in the nation to deploy a fully electric school bus fleet…which gives the green light to school bus and charging infrastructure manufacturers to bring cutting-edge technologies and their benefits to New York's school children,” said Leah Meredith of AEE.
Policies to speed adoption
While federal infrastructure funding is important for jump-starting new programs, the IIJA funds are only enough to electrify a small fraction of the U.S. fleet. States have driven electrification so far and will only capture the full benefits via three important policy actions.
Set a bold electric bus target
States should adopt ambitious, but realistic transportation electrification targets. Research shows electrifying all new medium- and heavy-duty buses and trucks by 2035 is technically feasible and would save consumers trillions by 2050.
Establishing a firm target year for electrifying all school buses sends a strong market signal, assuring future demand for suppliers. Setting zero-emission vehicle standards requiring a percentage of all new vehicles be electric, ratcheting up over time to reach 100%, incentivizes innovation and lowers consumer costs.
States can adopt California’s Advanced Clean Trucks Rule, but they should move faster with electric school bus targets. Unlike some heavy-duty, long-haul truck operations, school bus routes can be served with currently available battery technology. California’s legislature recognized this fact, and is considering a bill (AB 2731) that would make all new school buses electric in the state by 2035.
Capture electric bus savings for all schools
States can help school districts capture long-term bus electrification savings through incentives. Grants and upfront rebates per bus should bring electric bus purchase prices in line with the upfront cost of a new diesel vehicle.
To ensure state dollars reduce the most pollution, programs should replace the oldest, most polluting vehicles first, as California’s replacement program does. And because low-income or Black and Brown communities are disproportionately burdened by pollution, schools in these communities should be the first in line for funding and technical assistance.
Grant programs should include direct outreach to schools, as well as worker training and on-going technical assistance. As multiple state funding pools may be available, a single application form to apply for all types of funding would considerably streamline the process.
Funding programs must not forget worker training, while district administrative staff will need technical assistance to support electric vehicle adoption. California and New York have both allocated funds for workforce development.
Plan for widespread electrification
Unlocking transportation electrification’s full benefits requires states to start planning now for 100% electric vehicles down the road. Regulators and public utility commissions should require electric utilities to develop comprehensive plans supporting widespread electric vehicle adoption, accounting for the unique needs of different electricity customers.
School districts shouldn’t have to worry about large electricity bills as they electrify their fleets, and utilities should design rates enabling schools to plug into managed charging, rewarding customers who charge vehicles at off-peak times with lower electricity rates – like school buses that are parked overnight when electricity demand is at its lowest.
Utilities should also view school buses as a power resource. An electric school bus battery equipped with vehicle-to-grid technology can provide power back to the grid, creating additional savings for schools and helping manage electricity demand for everyone in the state.
Graduating to clean rides for kids
Diesel buses expose our kids to toxic fumes each day when they’re just trying to get to school. We have all the technology needed to switch to electric buses, protecting children’s health and creating good jobs along the way.
Let’s not leave our kids or workers behind, it’s time to graduate to all electric.
Get Published - Build a Following
The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.
If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.