Rare electric school buses slowly gain traction

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Manufacturers are gearing up this year to provide school districts with hundreds of electric student buses as they replace aging diesel rigs.

Electric school buses are rare right now. They number in the dozens nationwide, but that stands to change as they move beyond the demonstration and pilot phase with improved technology.

Public health and climate change advocates claim that electric drive technology can improve lives, particularly those of children in low-income neighborhoods. But they tend to be too expensive without added incentives.

An electric school bus can cost twice as much as its diesel counterpart. Perhaps no other electric vehicle epitomizes the trade-off between pollution and upfront cost. Bridging that gap is a focus of advocates.

“It’s a really important market because we’re talking about the lungs of our children,” said John Boesel, the president of CALSTART, a trade group for clean transportation companies.

School buses carry about half the country’s students, or around 25 million children, each day, making them the largest form of mass transit in the country, according to the American School Bus Council. Diesel exhaust from the buses includes nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter.

U.S. EPA and the Transportation Department have long targeted school buses for reductions in tailpipe emissions. New buses meet stringent emissions standards. Various federal grants, like EPA’s Diesel Emissions Reduction Act program, seek to encourage school districts and fleet operators to upgrade older diesel buses.

As battery prices have dropped, the electric option has sparked interest.

The trend is taking hold among city buses. More than 100 electric public transit buses are in operation around the country, from Seattle to Louisville, with hundreds more on the way. Proterra Inc., an electric bus manufacturer based in Burlingame, Calif., has a backlog of around 400 orders.

“We’re starting to see some significant drops in cost,” said Boesel. “We’re going to see that market really take off. There’s no reason why 100 percent of all new transit buses couldn’t be zero-emissions by 2025.”

School buses could follow.

They aren’t used as often, which offers both pros and cons. They take longer to pay off. But they are easy to charge during the day, when they sit in parking lots. And during the summer, when they aren’t used at all, they could serve as backup batteries to the grid, particularly on sunny days.

Utilities like Consolidated Edison in New York are already embracing that potential as the city looks to electrify its school bus fleet (Climatewire, June 20).

Limited to Calif.

Larger manufacturers are starting to take interest in the market, which has been mostly dominated by small retrofits so far.

The country’s largest school bus manufacturer, Georgia-based Blue Bird Corp., received a $4.4 million grant from the Department of Energy in December to speed development of an electric school bus. The Lion Electric Co., headquartered in Quebec, also makes several electric school buses using revenue from Quebec and California’s linked carbon cap-and-trade program. Other school bus manufacturers like Trans Tech are starting to offer electric options, as well.

Jim Castelaz, founder and CEO of Motiv Power Systems, which provides the electric powertrain for heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers like Trans Tech and Ford Motor Co., said the interest has been overwhelming.

For example, he said, Starcraft Bus, a manufacturer, came to him in October to ask about electrifying one of its buses. A demonstration model hit the road in January.

“After a few weeks of demos, they had interest from over 40 different school districts who wanted over 200 of those school buses, which is far more than we’re all able to support at once immediately,” Castelaz said.

The burgeoning industry is still being propped up by incentives.

Revenue from California’s cap-and-trade program is behind most deployments to date. School districts in rural Northern California have been using a dozen electric buses for several years.

Air quality officials in Sacramento last month started rolling out 29 electric school buses from various manufacturers. A day after President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, Southern California air officials approved $8.8 million for the purchase of 33 electric school buses. They had received requests from more than 50 school districts for nearly 300 of the buses.

Volkswagen settlement as catalyst

The price tag remains an almost insurmountable challenge, especially outside of California. An electric school bus can cost around $250,000, compared with around $100,000 for a diesel model.

Environmental groups in the Midwest are trying to drum up interest and pressure policymakers to funnel more money to the technology.

They are urging air officials to dedicate a portion of the funds from Volkswagen AG’s settlement with regulators over its diesel emissions cheating scandal to school buses. EPA will soon start distributing $2.7 billion in Volkswagen funds to states to boost technologies that lower NOx emissions, including electric school buses.

“Volkswagen can be something that can help push it to a tipping point of being cost-competitive,” said Susan Mudd, a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Chicago-based nonprofit. “It’s an incredible opportunity to transform the market.”