“The school bus industry is changing. We are going to go through the largest transformation the industry has ever seen in its 100-plus years of existence. And that’s because electric is here, and it’s not going away.”
That’s according to Kevin Matthews, head of electrification at First Student, a leading school bus transportation provider. The company currently deploys 310, a number they anticipate to increase in the coming years
He says district leaders should begin looking into the available sources of funding as early as possible citing concerns about their longevity.
“Mixing the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program and $5 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill—states have some funding as well—that’s available now,” Matthews says. “Five billion dollars seems like a lot of money. It’s not. That’ll disappear in the not-too-distant future. Moving now while these funds are available is going to be critical.”
Diesel prices are also on the rise, he adds, which heavily impacts districts’ cost-benefit analyses of their bus fleets. Additionally, he believes diesel engines for school buses will disappear much sooner than people realize. By 2026, at least 15 states will no longer be purchasing diesel-run school buses. Instead, they’ll be adopting legislation first introduced in California, the Advanced Clean Fleets rule, which will require manufacturers of medium- to heavy-duty vehicles to transition to zero-emissions starting in 2036.
“The people who manufacture diesel engines are beginning to stop manufacturing or investing in meeting emissions requirements in these states because they know they’ll no longer be able to sell them,” he says. “The diesel engine development is coming to a halt.”
Add to that a mandate from the Environmental Protection Agency, which proposed new greenhouse emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles. For upcoming model years 2028-2032, manufacturers will be expected to meet more stringent standards than ever before required by the EPA.
“The manufacturers have to meet these requirements,” he says. “They are going to have to have more and more zero-emissions vehicles they manufacture to meet these requirements.”
Each of these regulations provides a forecast of how the traditional diesel-run school bus will be phased out of district transportation.
A slow transition
As of June 2023, nearly 6,000 electric school buses have been awarded, delivered or are in operation across 914 school districts or private fleet operators, according to a recent count by the World Resources Institute, a global research nonprofit. This time last year, they noted a significant rise in the number of ESBs (electric school buses) being adopted by schools, and it’s a trend that’s continued since.
However, many leaders are still hesitant due to the initial sticker shock associated with the initial cost of an all-electric fleet. Greg Jackson, director of business development for School Bus Logistics and former executive director of transportation for Colorado’s second-largest school district Jefferson County Public Schools, says leaders must understand that it’s a long-term investment that eventually pays off.
“It’s going to pay for itself over the lifespan of that bus,” he says. “Now, you’re not paying for the parts necessary for an engine, which will constantly need servicing. A battery will give you about eight years of operation.”
But before you begin this transition, Jackson cautions leaders to do their research ahead of time. Districts need the proper infrastructure to operate these vehicles effectively.
“Infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges for school districts because electric buses require more spacing than diesel buses or any fossil fuel vehicle,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure you have chargers in place. You’ll have to work with your local electric companies to see if your grid can withstand the impact of charging and maintaining that bus.”
He says hiring for special positions like a sustainability director who is responsible for overseeing this type of work can help districts make significant progress in this area.
“Usually, it helps with the process,” he says. “If you’re alone as a director of transportation, you’re often thinking, ‘What do I do next?'”
Don’t be too quick to leverage these previously mentioned funding sources, too, he argues. Implementing a successful ESB fleet requires you to do your homework ahead of time. Can they be used on your routes? How much charge will you get out of them? Do I need to redesign our routes? These are the kinds of questions leaders ought to ask ahead of time.
“As people are looking to bring on EV, there’s a lot of that background work coupled with hesitations and fear that these buses are not going to do what they need to do,” he notes. “It’s all about doing the pre-planning necessary before you take your next steps.”