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School Bus Electrification: What You Need to Know . . . Now

With significant federal funds incentivizing a transition to clean school buses, this topic has been permeating conversations in many school districts in America. But transitioning a district’s bus fleet to EV is more complicated than simply applying for funds and buying the electric buses. Before diving in, many district leaders need more information on making the switch to electric school buses. Let’s explore the benefits and considerations of school bus electrification, and how an electrified fleet can embed into your school district’s broader energy master plan.

About the Clean School Bus funding

There are nearly 500,000 school buses on the road every day in the U.S., making it the largest mass transportation fleet in the country. The transportation sector overall accounts for the greatest share of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and 95% of school buses still rely on polluting diesel fuel to safely transport children to and from school.

To help America’s schools join in the energy transition and reap the many benefits of a cleaner, more electrified system, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 created a new $5 billion fund to advance clean school buses. These monies will be administered and distributed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the next five years with the goal of replacing old school buses with zero- and low-emission models.

The first round of funds, amounting to $500 million, is available now through August 2022 via a rebate program accessible on the EPA’s website. Schools that are in the market to update their fleets with EV buses have a huge opportunity to make that transition now, and in the process gain a variety of attractive benefits for their schools.

The benefits of school bus electrification

Clean school buses are a clear way for America’s school system to take a significant step toward accelerating the nation’s energy transition. There are many other benefits to clean school buses that may be less well known:

Improved air quality and student health: Traditional fossil-fueled school buses emit tailpipe exhaust contributing to local pollution and increase the concentration of harmful particulates that can affect children’s developing lungs. Repeated exposure to diesel pollution, which has been recorded to be up to 10 times higher inside buses, can aggravate asthma and allergies in children. These conditions affect students’ physical and mental well-being, attendance record, and ability to perform well in school. An electric school bus does not emit any pollution and will drastically improve the environment.

Reduced costs and simpler maintenance: With gas prices reaching historic highs, many districts are wishing they would have transitioned to EV years ago to protect budgets from volatile gas prices and fuel shortages. Electric school buses can help districts balance and stabilize their fuel costs, and with the federal funding, can be more cost-efficient overall. Paired with reduced maintenance, a comparable or longer vehicle lifecycle, and federal rebates, the savings have the potential to compensate for higher upfront cost of electric options in the long run.

Sustainability goals: Not only do emissions from school buses impact students directly through local pollution and poor air quality, but they also contribute to global climate impact. Transport emissions are the number one contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Districts will position themselves as innovative leaders while making strides to improve the health and environment of their communities through the early adoption of clean school buses.

Greater resilience: For that vast majority of districts, upgrading electrical infrastructure to support EV bus charging is also a huge part of the clean bus transition. Many forward-thinking school districts are implementing technologies that help provide flexibility and reduce reliance on America’s aging electric grid, like solar and microgrids. This ensures school bus transportation is available despite grid disruptions, and also that electric buses are being powered with green, low carbon energy versus grid power, which may be coming from dirtier sources such as local coal plants. In addition, electrified school buses – which are essentially huge rolling batteries – can be used to provide resilient power back to school campuses when not in use. Using vehicle-to-grid technology, schools with electric buses can tap into these batteries to serve energy requirements in the event of an outage or emergency. As many schools often serve as emergency shelters during natural disasters, this can benefit the entire community.

Community goodwill and environmental equity: Adopting electric transportation options also earns a school district a positive reputation and the goodwill of the community. The health benefits of electric vehicles can also go a long way in serving a district’s lower-income families and students. Low-income students are typically more exposed to the harmful effects of pollution. 60% of students from low-income families ride the bus to school, compared to just 45% of students from higher-income families. Plus, economically vulnerable children and children from minority populations in the U.S. are more likely to suffer from asthma.

Bus fleet electrification is only a single step in your larger infrastructure plan

Electric buses alone can drive significant value. However, the real power of sustainability projects is unlocked when an initiative like this is paired with other energy-saving measures and capital improvements to the entire facility portfolio in order to create transformational change district-wide.

The same energy audit process, energy-efficient technology and implementation approach taken to make an EV fleet possible could be applied to the rest of the district with new lighting, HVAC, building automation, water conservation, and resilient power. Many districts are combining their capital project list into a comprehensive programmatic approach and leveraging innovative funding streams to make impactful, long-term changes and quickly see financial benefits.

School modernization projects should utilize all available funding resources, such as the new Clean Bus fund announced by the EPA. For example, Modesto City Schools utilized California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) to finance a portion of the overall cost of its EV bus purchase. In addition to HVIP, the district is financing its larger sustainability program by leveraging energy and operational savings from the project via an Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC), as well as federal stimulus funds and local grants.

This comprehensive approach to facility improvements and fleet electrification will allow districts to optimize stimulus-funded upgrades and make improvements beyond the Clean School Bus stimulus scope, reducing energy and operational costs district-wide by 20-30% and reinvesting those savings to improve the entire student experience in school facilities.

Important considerations when choosing school bus electrification

When you’re ready to electrify your bus fleets, the transition is not as easy as buying the buses and hitting the road. There are infrastructure and logistics considerations that school districts should be aware of, whether you’ve already taken advantage of the federal rebates or are considering it.

How will you charge your buses? Purchasing a fleet of electric buses is a key component, but districts will need charging components to make the new buses actionable. The fleet will require charging stations and advanced electrical infrastructure to be installed at bus depots. And there are several different types of charges with varying costs, advantages, and disadvantages. Schools must consider what mix of charger types will be needed to power the fleet quickly and cost-effectively. What is the most efficient charging schedule? Should chargers be all in one place or dispersed along the bus routes?

Do your bus routes need updating? With electric buses, it will be important to evaluate bus routes to find the most efficient use of mileage and to accommodate the usable range of new electric school buses. Factors like temperature, elevation, wind, and charging capacity will affect the usable range and should be considered as new routes planned. The shape and topography of your school district, along with the number of runs needed for each bus daily, should all be evaluated.

Make clean buses a reality for your school district

Fleet electrification is just a first step for school districts on their sustainability journey. Federal funding is making it more accessible than ever to transition to electric vehicles, which makes now the optimal time for all districts to consider moving toward an EV fleet and making commitments that will improve our environment for students and the community.

At Schneider Electric, we’re ready to help district leaders understand what an electric bus transition might look like for each district. Our team will guide you through the process and considerations unique to each district’s goals and infrastructure and help take full advantage of federal funding opportunities. 

Download our school bus electrification checklist to learn more about how to prepare your school for an electric bus fleet.