A report by non-profit clean transportation advocate CALSTART found that there are at least 3,045 electric school buses (ESBs) in operation or the manufacturing pipeline, a 41-percent increase that is likely much higher when factoring in the effect of unprecedented federal funding.
CALSTART on Thursday released the data on ESBs awarded, ordered, delivered or deployed across the U.S. through last December. The number omits ESBs procured through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2022 Clean School Bus Program year-one rebate awards, which had yet to be finalized at the time of the report’s writing. There have been anecdotal reports of some school districts refusing the awards because of rising costs, but according to the EPA about 95 percent of the over 2,400 school buses to be awarded are the battery-electric variety.
Adjusting for canceled orders due to high inflation and supply chain constraints as well as complications with incentive funding “or for any number of reasons,” the report found that 888 new ESBs were adopted between September 2021 and the end of last year. Still, it noted “significant” growth of ESBs especially in Illinois, which added 81 of the vehicles. Connecticut represented the largest percentage growth at 2,150 percent, as the state increased to 43 ESBs from the previous two. Montana had the second-highest growth rate at 1,200 percent after adding its first 12 ESBs.
Other high-growth states were New Jersey with 58 new ESBs added last year, North Carolina with 48, and New York with 15.
California remains the leader nationwide at 1,689 ESBs. Maryland is second at 336 vehicles (all in one district), followed by Florida (218), Virginia (152) and New Jersey (90).
“Tracking electric school bus adoption data is crucial in monitoring progress, evaluating incentive program effectiveness, identifying potential barriers, and improving city plans and resource allocation,” the report writes. “States can evaluate their incentive programs’ performance and determine whether the adoption rate trajectory meets expectations or goal mandates. Officials can also use this data to identify potential barriers to adoption and develop strategies to overcome them while prioritizing resource allocation and infrastructure development where electric school bus adoption is already high.”
Many ESB advocates have called the school bus the tip of the spear when it comes to electrifying medium- and heavy-duty commercial fleets. According to its Beachhead Model, developed alongside the California Air Resources Board, CALSTART says school buses fall under the second wave of adoption alongside cargo vans and yard trucks. The model predicts transit buses and forklifts to lead the way.
But challenges remain for ESB adoption, most notably soaring prices ranging from $270,000 to over $400,000 per vehicle depending on the size, model and technical assistance needs. While increased federal and state funding have removed cost barriers for school districts in the short term, the report finds that the funding does not always fully address school district needs. CALSTART says the rapid expansion of ESBs will result in technical knowledge gaps at school districts and the need for additional assistance and resources to help them scale their fleets.
Those needs must be addressed soon, as an increasing number of states are legislating or setting policies for target dates for full deployment of ESBs over the coming decade.
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The report discusses emerging models that can help school districts finance the burden of implementing and deploying ESBs. It notes the availability of “as a service” solutions that cover the cost of the vehicles and charging infrastructure for a subscription fee, fleet battery support programs from utilities, and “Green Banks” that provide loans, loan guarantees and credit enhancements using funds from governments, private investors and charities.
CALSTART also addresses the repowering of buses, which entails removing the engine, transmission and drivetrain and replacing it with battery packs, an electric motor, and an electric drive. Repowers can cost up to 40 percent less than a new ESB, but challenges remain for that segment as well such as engineering unique solutions to integrate repower components into every vehicle model year and sourcing used school buses.
Legislation also often omits language to cover the cost of a repowered bus, the report concludes, and repowers are often not sold through typical channels such as school bus dealers. This poses a challenge for these companies to gain recognition in the market, says CALSTART.