Biden's electric school bus deal is an important first step — but falls short

Biden's electric school bus deal is an important first step — but falls short
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Last Thursday, the Biden administration announced its support for a bipartisan infrastructure deal totaling $1.2 trillion. The framework for the deal includes $7.5 billion to help replace thousands of diesel-powered school and transit buses with electric models. This is an important step in supporting school bus electrification, but it falls far short of what’s needed to protect students and the environment.

Electric school buses are a worthy investment. There are roughly 480,000 school buses being used for school transportation in the United States — more than twice the size of all other modes of mass transit combined. These buses travel a total of nearly 3.5 billion miles each year, and nearly 95 percent of them run on diesel fuel. As a result, replacing more of these buses with electric models can substantially reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, nearly one-third of which come from transportation. Even though electric buses have no tailpipe emissions, there are still associated GHG emissions due to generating electricity using fossil fuels, but the electric grid will almost certainly become cleaner over time.

In addition, this lack of tailpipe emissions means that investing in electric school buses would also reduce pollution. Exposure to these pollutants, like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, can harm students’ health and development, including academic outcomes. For example, studies of the effects of retrofitting diesel school buses with improvements that reduce emissions — a cheaper, short-term alternative to electrification — have shown that retrofits can help increase test scores at a much lower relative cost than reducing class sizes. These benefits are particularly important for the 6.1 million children with asthma in the United States. And again, scale is important here: Prior to school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, school buses transported somewhere between one-third and half of America’s 50 million public school students to and from school each day.

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Electric school buses can also lead to long-term savings for school districts and companies that provide school transportation services. Electricity is less expensive than diesel fuel and has more stable prices. Electric school buses also require less maintenance than those powered by diesel. Their motors have many fewer component parts, and they don’t require the oil, gaskets, valves, etc. that come along with an internal combustion engine. These buses can also generate additional savings when equipped with vehicle-to-grid technology, like bidirectional chargers that can both draw energy from and return it to the overall electrical grid. This allows charging vehicles to become repositories for overproduction, meaning they can help reduce stress on the grid and shrink utility bills. This is particularly relevant for school buses, which are used less often in the summer months during peak air conditioning needs.

However, electrifying school bus fleets requires a large-scale upfront investment. Electric buses currently cost about three times more than diesel options and require new infrastructure like charging stations. The $7.5 billion (split between school and transit buses) in the current framework is only half the amount in President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE’s initial proposal and far less than the $25 billion for school bus electrification alone that some groups are supporting. But at current costs, even $25 billion would only electrify about 20 percent of school buses — and school districts only spend $27 billion total on school transportation each year.

The benefits of electric school buses can also be constrained by staffing challenges and poor implementation. For example, only 6 percent of school transportation operations currently maintain electric buses, while nearly half need maintenance technicians to regularly get behind the wheel to cover routes due to persistent driver shortages. Additionally, inefficient practices like charging buses at high-demand times, charging batteries longer than needed and not providing adequate access to chargers can increase energy costs as well as limit emissions reductions. This means that investments in staff training and expertise will be just as important as investments in buses and other physical infrastructure.

Even still, $7.5 billion is certainly better than nothing. The early stages of school bus electrification desperately need support from government and philanthropy until the costs of electric buses and their batteries decrease over time as expected. When considering that electric models still only account for less than 1 percent of annual school bus sales in the United States, the investment proposed in Biden’s bipartisan framework is a critical step in the right direction.

Phillip Burgoyne-Allen is a 2021 Clean Energy Leadership Institute fellow and a policy professional focused on transportation and environment issues. Previously, he conducted research on education policy, including extensive work on school transportation.