Soon, it may be electricity that makes the wheels on the bus go ’round and ’round—not diesel.
This month, the Senate passed President Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure deal. The plan earmarks $2.5 billion for zero-emissions buses—enough for around 11,000 electric buses—plus another $2.5 billion for “low-emissions” ones.
The 480,000-strong fleet of US school buses makes up 80% of all buses in the country, but as of this month, less than 1% are electric, according to the World Resources Institute. Electrifying all US school buses could slash nationwide bus emissions in half—and since the transportation sector at large is responsible for nearly 30% of US emissions, that’s big news.
The road ahead
With the exception of The Magic School Bus’s field trips to outer space and the ocean floor, most school buses follow preplanned routes, traveling an average of 73 miles on a typical day.
That makes them ideal candidates for electrification—electric buses are now more than capable of exceeding this range and can recharge at overnight docking stations. GreenPower Motor Company, a Canadian electric bus manufacturer, typically tells drivers to plan for a 120-mile range on one charge.
The new plan’s $$ will electrify at most another ~2.2% of school buses, and environmental advocates say it’s not enough. The Electric School Bus Coalition, for instance, would like 10 times as much: $25 billion. On some level, Biden himself likely agrees. His initial plan last year proposed replacing 96,000 US school buses—or 20% of the current operating fleet—with electric buses.
Even still, electric school bus makers say they’re already seeing an increase in interest thanks to the bill.
“We’ve got great momentum, and the whole Biden plan definitely served as a tailwind for us,” Ryne Shetterly, VP of sales and marketing at GreenPower Motor Company, told Emerging Tech Brew, adding that he thinks there’s a good chance we could see 100,000 electric school buses on the road by 2030.
The bulk of GreenPower’s customers are based in California, and the company now sees orders of six to 10 school buses at once—up from one or two per order a few years ago. But lately, they’ve had interest from Georgia, West Virginia, and customers historically located in “coal country.”
“If there is money to start adopting some of these projects…people are going to take those chances,” Shetterly said.
The day the infrastructure plan was finalized, GreenPower got two or three requests for proposals from outside California, asking about purchase pricing and what’s on offer. Ultimately, he said, the deal is a boon, “barring that there’s not so much red tape that the money’s not even functional.”
Electric school buses cost about 3x more than diesel ones, but over time, considering fuel and maintenance costs, the total dollar-per-mile cost of ownership is equivalent, Russell Vare, director of automotive partnerships at Nuvve, told us. He foresees the infrastructure deal bringing market costs down.
“The funding can…be a subsidy to reduce that upfront cost, or two, it can help just prove that there’s a market here and give that ability for manufacturers to invest and…get economies of scale to push that price down on the buses,” he said.
In other words, the infrastructure deal could help the relatively traditional school bus sector overcome inertia. Getting access to one electric bus could create a snowball effect.
“I’ve talked to a lot of transportation directors, and they’re pretty skeptical of electric,” Vare said, referencing their concerns about seasonal weather changes and range. But for the ones who have had early deployments, he said, “It gives them a lot of confidence to then start transitioning the fleet.”