BEVERLY, MASS. – It’s a gray November morning and we’re on a long, yellow school bus.
The bus rolls through the patchy streets of this Boston neighborhood in a way that would be familiar to anyone who has taken the bus to class. But the bus is quiet – and not just because there are no children on board.
This school bus is electric.
Currently, only a small fraction of America’s 480,000 school buses are battery operated. Most still use gasoline or diesel engines, as they have for decades. But thanks to rapidly maturing electric vehicle technology and new incentives available under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, electric school buses will become more common over the next decade.
“It’s like a big giant go-kart,” said bus driver November, who has driven mostly gas-powered school buses for more than 30 years. “When you accelerate, you move. When you stop accelerating, you stop. And you don’t hear a sound.”
“Driving a diesel bus is not like driving a go-kart,” he said.
Environmental activists have been pushing for years to replace diesel and gasoline-powered school buses with new electric models. Until recently, they faced a number of major challenges: Only a few companies made fully electric school buses, the prices were too high, and the need for new “refueling” and maintenance infrastructure to replace the tried-and-true diesel proved too difficult for many schools. . officers.
This is starting to change. Over the past few years, more companies, including longtime school bus manufacturers, have begun producing electric school buses, government subsidies have increased, and regulators and nonprofits have worked to educate school districts, utilities and the general public about the benefits. .
But it’s not like selling electric cars to drivers. School districts must navigate a confusing array of subsidies and restrictions — and deal with the awkward fact that a new EV bus currently costs far more than a traditional diesel-powered bus (three to four times more, in fact).
Developing a battery-electric version of a long-haul truck is as difficult as starting electric cars Nicola it works on because the batteries needed to cover the distance are very heavy and take hours to charge.
But for a school bus, which only needs a limited distance and has a lot of free time to fill, the job is simpler. The advantages of traditional buses are clear.
They are better and save more once you put them in the depot.
Director of the World Resources Institute
Electric school buses, or ESBs, are not only better for the environment—by not emitting diesel fumes or other emissions—they’re also better for the children they carry, especially those with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma.
Like other electric vehicles, ESBs will have lower maintenance costs over time than their internal combustion counterparts.
Plus, the buses’ large batteries can temporarily store and deliver power to power buildings and other devices in an emergency or as part of a larger renewable energy strategy.
However, all these benefits come with a price tag.
ESBs are expensive: Battery-electric versions of small “Type A” school buses cost about $250,000, compared to $50-$65,000 for diesels; Full-size “Type C” or “Type D” buses can cost between $320,000 and $440,000 in electric form, and around $100,000 for diesel.
“They’re better, and once you put them in a repository, the savings will be greater,” Sue Gander, a former official at the US Environmental Protection Agency, told CNBC in a recent interview. “But that’s how it is initially, without him [government] incentives, you can’t even break [in comparison to diesel buses].”
Gander leads the World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative, a project funded in part by the Bezos Earth Foundation, created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The initiative works with school officials, utility companies and ESB manufacturers to accelerate the adoption of zero-emission school buses.
“We think that over the next three to four years as costs come down, as scale increases, we’ll need those incentives to make the numbers work,” he said.
Like other electric vehicles, ESBs will require new infrastructure: At least one school district or bus operator will have to install chargers and retrain their mechanics to service the new buses’ battery-electric drive systems and control systems.
Thomas Built electric school bus in Beverly, Massachusetts.
John Rosevear | CNBC
For those in small school districts and low-income areas, the costs and challenges can be daunting.
Duncan McIntyre is trying to make it easier, or at least easier, for school districts to go electric. After years in the solar business, he founded Highland Fleets, a company dedicated to making the transition to electric buses simple and affordable for school districts and local governments across the country.
“You have more expensive equipment, but it runs cheaper,” he said, noting that — as with other EVs — the cost of charging and maintaining an electric school bus is much lower than gas or diesel buses.
He says, “The last thing that everyone is ignoring is that these bus batteries can send electricity back into the grid to meet peak demand. And that’s an opportunity for the energy market to generate additional revenue.”
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed late last year includes $5 billion in subsidies for low- and zero-emission school buses over the next five years.
The EPA, which administers these subsidies, said in September that nearly 2,000 U.S. school districts have already applied for the subsidies, and more than 90% of those applications require electric buses. (The rest sought subsidies for low-emission buses that run on propane or compressed natural gas, the agency said.)
Not all of these requests, which together amount to nearly $4 billion in subsidies, will be approved immediately. The EPA released nearly $1 billion in October, targeting low-income, rural and tribal communities. It plans to distribute another $1 billion in 2023.
California offers statewide subsidies of up to $235,000 per bus through the Air Resources Board, plus an additional $30,000 per bus for equipment upgrades. The agency allocated $122 million for the program this year.
Colorado has earmarked $65 million for a similar program. New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Maine moved to establish similar programs this year, with New York becoming the first state to target a 100% electric school bus fleet by 2035.
The money is helpful, but Gander said school districts still need to consider all aspects of working with electricity.
“It’s really about supporting school districts, helping them understand where are electric buses currently located in my fleet? And how do I plan to add them to my fleet as I go?” Gander said. “How do I develop the infrastructure? How do I access the funding and financing that’s out there? And how do I involve the community in that process?”