HomeSpecial ReportsExpectations Temper Despite Feds Funding Zero-, Low-Emissions School Buses

Expectations Temper Despite Feds Funding Zero-, Low-Emissions School Buses

Incentives for zero- and low-emission school buses were frequently mentioned during the seemingly endless debates over the infrastructure bill that was finally signed into law a month ago. And indeed, many district officials and industry leaders feel the law and surrounding discussion showed political will is heading in the same direction as market forces in driving cleaner school buses.

But breaking it down to a more pragmatic level, transportation heads on the leading edge of cleaner technology indicate they don’t feel the money in the law will necessarily go all that far, and they don’t see it driving major changes in their own fleets. Fortunately, however, the payoff from the law may go well beyond dollars allocated, raising awareness of and demand for cleaner school buses, and motivating districts to leverage various sources of funding to green their fleets.

The package authorizes $5 billion over five years for cleaner school buses—$500 million a year for electric and $500 million a year for CNG, propane and biofuels, including renewable diesel.

“When I first saw that number $1.2 trillion (the law’s total price tag) I thought for sure near-zero-emissions buses would get a lot bigger slice of the pie,” commented Matthew Belasco, director of maintenance, operations and transportation for Pittsburg Unified School District near San Francisco, which operates six renewable diesel buses and four all-electric buses. “Five billion sounds like a big number, but when you spread it out over the U.S. it doesn’t equal a heck of a lot. With the average electric zero-emissions bus costing about $400,000, it doesn’t go as far as it sounds like it goes.”

Nonetheless, Belasco added that something is better than nothing. “It could have been [school buses] got left out altogether,” he observed. “It is encouraging to know as Congress and the president look at the overall picture of the U.S., school buses are certainly something they’re thinking about.”

Brian Barrington, general manager of Type-A school bus startup Pegasus Bus and a long-time industry player, said the funding under the infrastructure law will help “a little bit” in advancing electric buses. But much more sweeping advancements are needed in technology and charging infrastructure.

“Given the cost of the vehicle, that money will go fairly quickly,” he said. “And there are still some areas where an electric bus won’t work. Until you have wholesale changes, there are still a lot of limitations, still a lot of costs. If you weren’t considering electric before [the law], you aren’t going to consider it now.”

Meanwhile, Nick Bettis, director of marketing and sales operations for Type-A electric drive provider Lightning eMotors, noted a “carrot and stick” approach is needed to spur electric bus adoption, and both are advancing.

“We’ve got a lot of carrots out there now with the Biden administration’s focus on electric vehicles, and then you have the stick side, the regulatory side,” he said, adding that state bureaucracies are included.

Details of how grants created by the infrastructure law will be awarded remain to be seen, with the U.S. Department of Transportation expected to release an education and outreach plan by mid-February. The funding can cover up to the full cost of buses and charging infrastructure. Belasco and others said they expect and hope that districts in economically distressed areas will be prioritized. But more affluent areas with disproportionately aging bus fleets would also be good targets for funding.

Several industry leaders said that the infrastructure law funding may be more helpful for low-emissions buses like propane and renewable diesel, where the cost is less and there are fewer related infrastructure needs and logistical questions than with electric buses.

For instance, Mike Bullman, transportation director for the South Carolina Department of Education, said he is enthusiastic about the potential for funding propane buses. The statewide fleet includes 218 propane buses with another 235 on the way, or nearly 10 percent of the buses operating there. He added he plans to apply for funding under the infrastructure law to add propane buses across multiple districts in the state. He has about 1,000 buses dating to model years 2001 through 2008, which he said he hopes and expects will be eligible for funding under the infrastructure law. He noted that diesel buses of newer vintage will be cleaner, so the law’s funding might be most effective if targeted toward replacing older diesel.

“We really started looking at propane for its obvious advantages,” Bullman said. “It’s a little lower total cost of ownership [when compared to diesel]. It becomes certainly one of those things that from a financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. Also, for the environment. And it lowers our dependence on foreign energy, since a lot of propane is produced here in America.”

Bullman said he also expects to add 50 to 75 electric buses to the statewide fleet, ideally tapping funds from the infrastructure law.

“The infrastructure is quite a bit more expensive, so you have to really pick and choose where you put [electric buses],” he noted. “But we’re really excited about the prospects. It’s really good for the school bus industry as a whole, both from an environmental and financial standpoint, it just elevates the industry to another level.”

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Related: Repowering Diesel School Buses to Electric an Option for Cash-Strapped Districts
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While Belasco in California said he is enthusiastic about electric buses, he thinks it was wise to set aside an equal amount of funding for low-emissions buses in the law, as those will be easier for districts to adopt. He’d said he’d like to see more federal dollars go for electric bus charging infrastructure.

“The technology for electric isn’t where it needs to be, the infrastructure is the biggest thing, so we can charge these buses when we go on longer trips, field trips to other cities when we’re doing athletic or music events,” Belasco said. “It’s definitely the sexy thing to have zero emissions, but it’s not a reality to just have zero emissions at this point. You can get gas on the corner of any city in the U.S., but where can you plug in a 40-foot bus? That’s another thing Congress should really focus on—helping build up that infrastructure so vehicles that are on the road have confidence when they get somewhere, that they can still get those kids back safely.”

Belasco said he would also like to see the money under the infrastructure law or other federal funding help with driver recruitment and retention, given the national driver shortage.

“Just in the Bay Area, I’m competing with Google and Twitter, who are paying their drivers $35 to $40 an hour to take tech executives from outlying areas into San Francisco and Oakland,” he said. “As we move forward, we can’t just think about the actual hardware, but the software, meaning the drivers, making those careers more attractive.”

The Fort Bend Independent School District southwest of Houston has 60 CNG buses in its fleet, with half of them purchased in 2018 and the other half this year via grants, said Demetrius Martin, the executive director of transportation. He added he hopes the infrastructure law will help the district acquire more CNG buses.

The rural geography and the cost means electric isn’t a very viable option at the moment, but Martin said his “dream” is ultimately to have a fleet of electric wireless charging buses. He added that he is looking forward to learning how the law affects the growing interest in electric buses, “especially as more manufacturers are making electric buses and more infrastructure is being built,” he concluded.


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