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Study Shows Increasing Complexity of Adding Electric, Alternative Fuels

LAS VEGAS – The Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Expo commenced Monday with the release of a comprehensive report on medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicle adoption of zero-emissions and low carbon technologies that indicates much confusion amid $32 billion in funding opportunities.

For the school bus sector, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program accounts for $5 billion of those dollars through 2026. The grants along with those provided on state and local levels has helped a growing number of battery-electric vehicle additions over the past year, finds the fifth annual State of Sustainable Fleets study conducted by ACT EXPO organizer TRC Companies, formerly known as Gladstein, Neandross and Associates.

The survey of 200 commercial fleet operators and decision makers confirms what many in the school bus industry already know: Grants have accounted for nearly all electric school buses to date. School bus manufacturer IC Bus, for example, tells School Transportation News in the upcoming June magazine edition that all 1,000 electric school buses purchased so far have been the result of grant funds.

Highlighted by the EPA Clean School Bus Program nearing its half-way point, a new kind of electric range anxiety is developing for the school bus and truck operators, namely how and if increased adoption of a range for zero-emissions vehicles can be sustained amid increasing battery and production costs. Electric school buses, specifically, cost two to three times that of a new diesel school bus. At least in the near-term, purchase prices that have increased since the COVID-19 pandemic don’t appear to be coming down.

The report also cites production pauses and lowered forecasts — at least by some OEMs — delays in California Air Resources Board implementation of fleet purchasing mandates, service model mismatches, and multi-year lead times for large electric capacity upgrades.

Confirming another reality known by electric school bus adopters, the study’s authors write that electric infrastructure has emerged as the most critical determinant of the speed of battery-electric vehicle adoption. The report finds that stakeholders are realizing that the timelines and business models of fleets, charging vendors and electrical utilities are poorly aligned for rapid growth. To address these issues, it recommends that early engagement and strong partnerships with utilities can help to align expectations for both parties and share data and information that is critical for planning.

In terms of diesel, new vehicle purchase costs are forecasted to rise by 12 percent due to increasingly stringent emissions regulations issued by CARB and the EPA’s recently finalized GHG Phase 3 rule. The report pointed to an overall 7 percent increase in “pre-buys” of diesel trucks and buses prior to the 2024 model year, when EPA regulations begin to go into effect.

Low-carbon fuels are not without their own challenges. On one hand, the report finds that renewable diesel, or RD, offers critical solutions for fleets and allows the industry to cost-effectively transition to sustainable fleets, and they may also fill near-term gaps in electrical service for BEV operators by offering flexible power generation options when availability is an issue. But only school bus operators in California, Oregon and Washington are readily able to use RD because their respective Low Carbon Fuel Standard regulations offset the incremental cost over regular diesel. New Mexico recently became the latest state to adopt LCFS. In all other states, cost is proving to be a deterrent.

As a result, the report indicates the fuel is primarily being used with forklifts, with vehicle fleets “not currently considered a major market.” But, it notes that a blend of renewable propane with regular propane could be an answer. For example, Bonny Eagle School District in Maine is considered to be the first district East of the Rockies that uses 5 percent renewable with a propane-95 percent blend.

Overall, propane adoption fell in 2023 especially in the school bus sector, where electric school bus purchases account for over 95 percent of Clean School Bus Program funds, to date. School districts also now only have one propane option to choose from – Blue Bird – until Cummins releases its propane engine. Some school districts have turned to gasoline-powered school buses as a replacement until then.

The event continues Tuesday runs through Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

STN is a media sponsor of ACT Expo, which returns to Anaheim, California, April 28-May 1, 2025.

Related: (STN Podcast E159) ACT Expo Recap: Diesel’s Longevity, New Electric School Buses + Alt. Transportation Convo
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Related: EPA Announces Latest Grant Program Prioritizing Electric School Buses

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