Electric school bus investments could drive US vehicle electrification

Electric school bus investments could drive US vehicle electrification
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In early August, President Joe BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE set an ambitious and necessary goal for half of all new passenger vehicles sold in the United States to be electric by the end of the decade.

Transitioning to electric vehicles is critical to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change and clog our skies with toxic pollution. Investing in electric vehicle infrastructure and technologies will also be essential to make the U.S. competitive in the growing electric vehicle market.

Major automakers including Ford, General Motors, VW and others are rolling out new electric vehicle models and setting electrification goals to compete with dedicated electric vehicle makers such as Tesla, Rivian, and Proterra. Biden test drove Ford’s F-150 Lightning pickup last spring to highlight the need to invest in U.S. electric vehicle manufacturing. General Motors caught the attention of Superbowl viewers and Norway with its comical advertisement featuring actor Will Ferrell.

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But many American consumers still need to be convinced that electric vehicles will work for them. So how do you shift the public perception of electric vehicles?

One strategy is to electrify the nation’s 480,000 school buses.

First, electrifying the U.S. school bus fleet could create the first near-universal American electric vehicle experience. As the school year starts, children in communities across the U.S. will be picking up their backpacks and stepping onto yellow school buses. Diesel-operated buses expose students inside the bus to toxic air pollution that can be up to 12 times more concentrated than  outside air and harm lung development in children. Pollution-free electric buses could provide a plethora of benefits directly to communities, including improving children’s health and local air quality, cutting down noise on roads, and reducing the inequitable burden of pollution on low-income communities.

Second, the yellow school bus is largely a North American phenomenon, and the United States is a leader in electric school bus production. Two of the biggest manufacturers, Blue Bird and Thomas Built, are located in the U.S., and Lion Electric, an all-electric school bus manufacturer based in Canada, is opening a new manufacturing facility in Illinois. By ramping up production of electric school buses, technologies and charging infrastructure, the U.S. can drive growth in the domestic electric vehicle value chain beyond just school buses.

Making major investments in electric school buses would spur significant economic and job opportunities for the United States as it works to build back better than before. It could also have positive ramifications across the auto industry and create thousands of good manufacturing jobs.  

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Like electric passenger vehicles, electric buses will save money in the long term. Scaling up investments in production could also make upfront costs more affordable for school districts.

Third, electric school buses are ideal for demonstrating the value electric vehicle batteries can provide to the grid. Because school buses run mostly on fixed schedules and routes, they can be charged when clean electricity is readily available and even provide power back to the grid during peak demand periods when not transporting kids. In emergencies, such as blackouts caused by hurricanes or wildfires, electric school buses could be deployed as mobile power banks.

Electric school buses are a proven technology, and are already on the road in school districts across the country, but they still make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. fleet, with a majority of those in suburban communities. The primary thing preventing them from achieving widespread adoption is funding. As with many new technologies, the upfront cost of an electric school bus is currently much higher than a conventional diesel bus, although the operating and maintenance costs are much lower. With scaled up production the upfront costs will fall and electric will be the obvious choice for all new buses. For now, though, most school districts need federal funding to afford the investment.

Fortunately, the major benefits of electric school buses have caught the attention of federal lawmakers as well as the president and vice president. Members of the U.S. House and Senate introduced the Clean Commute for Kids Act earlier this year that would provide $25 billion over 10 years to replace diesel school buses with electric, zero-emission buses. The legislation would prioritize providing electric buses to communities that suffer disproportionately from low air quality, including low-income communities, Indigenous communities and communities of color through a new program at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Biden outlined major funding for electric school buses in the American Jobs Plan, and the recent bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the U.S. Senate established an EPA school bus program and committed $2.5 billion to replace diesel-powered school buses with electric buses. The bill, however, is imperfect as it includes another $2.5 billion for so-called “clean” buses, which could be used for polluting “alternative fuel” buses, such as compressed natural gas and propane. The federal government should not subsidize these kinds of fossil fuel vehicles, which would undermine the goal of achieving a zero-emissions transportation sector. 

Electric school buses are, of course, only one piece of the transportation electrification puzzle. We also need to electrify transit buses, delivery trucks, and eventually semis. Doing so will require national and local charging infrastructure, rebates to lower upfront costs as the market expands, and regulations to phase out the sale of polluting vehicles as the technology matures.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill is a start. In addition to the electric school bus program, it includes substantial funding for electric transit buses and charging infrastructure. But given the devastating effects of climate change we are seeing across the nation and the world, Congress must go further. The budget reconciliation package should include consumer rebates for electric vehicles and substantial additional funding for electric school buses and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.  

Electric school buses will not only provide healthier rides for U.S. students across the country, but they can accelerate the transition to electric vehicles in the U.S. by increasing public awareness of the benefits of electric vehicles, growing the supply chain, expanding the charging network and creating thousands of good manufacturing jobs across the country.

The electric vehicle future is speeding our way. The U.S. needs to get behind the wheel, not be left behind in a cloud of smoke.

Dan Lashof is the director of World Resources, United States. Follow him on Twitter: @DLashof