Electric buses cut pollution and spark interest, but there's a cost conundrum
With state and federal momentum growing to replace diesel school buses with electrics, and a manufacturing plant to build those vehicles moving to the suburbs, is Illinois on the cusp of a green transport revolution?
Maybe, but with electric school buses priced up to $350,000, there's a sticker shock issue to overcome.
On May 7, Gov. J.B. Pritzker welcomed Canadian-based Lion Electric to Will County. The company "plans to get up and running quickly in their new Joliet facility with a commitment to nearly 20,000 zero-emission vehicles each year," he said.
Electric buses are "definitely going to be the future," said John Benish Jr., president of Cook-Illinois Corp. The bus company, which transports schoolchildren across the region, owns two electric models out of a fleet of 2,200.
"They're great. They work very well. Today, the problem we have with electric vehicles is that they're cost-prohibitive," Benish said.
Regular school buses cost about $80,000 to $90,000, compared to up to $350,000 for an electric one, he explained.
There's about 480,000 school buses nationwide and nearly 95% run on diesel, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reports.
The Pritzker administration recently slated $33.6 million from a legal settlement with Volkswagen for electric school buses. Grants are available to suburban communities at www2.illinois.gov/epa/topics/air-quality/driving-a-cleaner-illinois.
That's a good start, advocates say, and buyers should also consider the savings on diesel fuel and maintenance, given that electrics don't require oil changes.
"The upfront costs are higher but the total cost is going to be closer or equal, and in some cases it could be less than diesel," Environmental Law & Policy Center Senior Policy Advocate Susan Mudd said. She also noted some bus owners who charge vehicles overnight have been able to sell back power to utilities.
Lion Electric officials estimate that customers save up to 80% of fuel costs.
But $33.6 million from the state buys only about 96 school buses, or less than 5% of Cook-Illinois' fleet alone. That means an incremental approach for districts and bus companies without wads of cash on hand.
At Indian Prairie Unit District 204, "we are currently working with (bus contractor) First Student on their electric school bus pilot program," Transportation Director Ron Johnson said. "The plan is to pilot up to five electric school buses once they receive the grant funding to purchase them."
Congress is considering several bills, including the American Jobs Plan, to help pay for electrifying school bus fleets. The AJP pushed by the White House would be funded partly by raising corporate income taxes from 21% to 28%
"If those kinds of big dollars are out there, it means production will go up and costs will go down," Mudd said.
Why is switching to electric buses so important? While buses provide safe trips for kids, diesel exhaust has a "negative impact on human health, especially for children who have a faster breathing rate than adults and whose lungs are not yet fully developed," the U.S. EPA reports. They're also much quieter and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Hollis Grade School in Peoria uses one of an estimated seven electric school buses in the state.
"We are pleased with the health benefits for our students as the electric bus immediately cleans the air our students, staff, and community breathe each and every day," Principal Chad Jones said.
In the metro region, "like everyone else, we look forward to moving toward cleaner energy sources," Northwest Suburban High School District 214 spokesman Dave Beery said. "The development of electric school buses is in a relatively early stage, so school districts will have a lot to learn. Key factors for us would include cost, range, availability and environmental impact.
"We are aware of Gov. Pritzker's interest and look forward to hearing more from the state regarding its plans."
Got thoughts on electric buses? Drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You should know
On the subject of electrification, Metra is challenging the rail industry to come up with proposals to convert three of its aged diesel locomotives to zero-emission battery power. Officials hope to award a contract this fall.
Lane closures continue on Stearns Road between Hutchins Road and Hunt Club Road near Gurnee as Lake County Transportation Division workers fix a collapsed culvert. Repairs should finish by late May or early June.