Why is it taking so long to bring electric school buses into suburban fleets?
Green school buses still costly, need infrastructure
The electric vehicle, a technology in the making for decades, is one of the hottest topics of the current movement to decarbonize and fight climate change. But while personal EVs are not uncommon, electric school buses are a much rarer sight.
Advocates and bus contractors say the holdup can be attributed to three factors: price, range anxiety and electric infrastructure like charging stations and grid capacity. This is all driven by the fact that electric school buses have just freshly arrived on the market.
"We're in our infancy when it comes to electric school buses, and the transition to electric is the biggest change the school bus industry will ever go through," said Kevin Matthews, head of electrification at First Student, a national bus contractor that serves several districts in the Chicago metro area.
The buses have been available at scale -- where contractors can order them and expect them to be delivered in a defined time period -- only for about three years, Matthews said.
That newness drives up both price and buyer hesitation. Electric school buses cost about triple that of regular diesel school buses. Districts and contractors both have concerns about adjusting to the technology without too many hiccups.
"Your biggest concern as a student transportation coordinator is stranding children. I mean, that's bad news. What happens if this bus runs out of energy, and I've got 67 kids stuck on a bus somewhere?" Matthews said. "There's just that hesitation to be the first out there doing this type of thing."
Matthews added that the more electric buses are bought, the lower the price tag will go. In the meantime, government programs have funding available by application to help tackle the barrier.
The Clean School Bus Act, which rolled out last year as part of the federal Inflation Reduction Act, allocated $5 billion over the next five years to replace existing buses with zero-emission and low-emission models.
The first round of funding, announced last year, was to be allocated via a lottery of districts on a priority list for schools with more than 20% of students below the poverty line, based on the census Small Area Income and Poverty Estimate. The model, which left out most districts in our region including Palatine Schaumburg District 211 and Chicago Public Schools, has drawn some criticism by advocates who say the requirements are too narrow.
As the second iteration of the program nears this spring, Matthews said the U.S. EPA is expected to make adjustments. "They're coming out with another round here in March or near that time period, and we'll look to see what other school districts are now qualified," he said. "The program is also going to have a competitive grant program this go around, which they didn't have last time."
Meanwhile in Illinois, the state's Environmental Protection Agency awarded over $4.2 million to help fund 17 electric school buses in Chicagoland and in the Metro East region near St. Louis, the agency announced last January.
As a result, several schools in Cook, Lake, McHenry and DuPage counties are expecting their first electric bus this spring, including Barrington High School, Rolling Meadows High School, Lake Park High School and Huntley High School.
Ahead of the buses' arrival, contractors will be ensuring chargers are in place, working with local utilities to prepare the grid for the buses and carefully choosing which routes the electric vehicles will fit best in.
Contractors are also working closely with local utility companies not only to ensure the grid will be able to support the buses, but also to explore ways the buses can support the grid in turn in a process called "vehicle to grid."
The idea is that if a school bus isn't in use and a utility needs extra electricity, the company can send a signal to the vehicle and receive any excess battery power.
"School buses sit 85% of the hours of the year. We're unlike any other fleet," Matthews said. "Because the batteries are a pretty big size, they actually become a resource to our utilities."
While Matthews emphasized the difficulty of planning it takes to place just one electric school bus, he said the transition is slow but sure.
"It's not easy. I want to make that very clear. This is not easy," he said. "But it is doable. We can do this."
Susan Mudd, an attorney and senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, added that the health benefits behind the switch to electric make the decarbonization effort all the more important.
"Why would parents care about what type of school bus their kids are being transported to and fro on every day? Our reason for this, which I think comports with most parents, is our interest in children's health," she said.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, diesel exhaust has a harmful impact on human health, especially for children, who have a faster breathing rate than adults and whose lungs are not yet fully developed.
"It's really important to get kids into the zero-emission buses where the fumes are not being recirculated and they're being exposed to them," Mudd said.
• Jenny Whidden is a Report For America corps member covering climate change and the environment for the Daily Herald. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.