Zero-emission buses: What districts need to know

Zero-emission school buses perform well on the road and pollute less, but there are still other factors to consider before purchasing any for a school transportation fleet.
By: | Issue: June, 2019
May 16, 2019
zero-emission busesCharging forward—Even though each of the five new electric buses of White Plains Public Schools in New York can travel 70 to 80 miles on a single charge, the vehicles are charged and cleaned after both morning and afternoon runs.

Around the time that the next school year starts, Maryland districts will be allowed to buy just one type of school bus: zero-emission.

Several other states have moved toward eco-friendlier student transportation. Lawmakers in Illinois and Indiana recently designated funds for electric buses, while a successful pilot program in New York has paved the way for growing its electric fleet.

Zero-emission school buses perform well on the road and pollute less, says Morgan Ellis, associate director for the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign.

“There are nearly 500,000 school buses on the road, so being able to decrease emissions is critical,” says Ellis. “Switching from a diesel engine to electric reduces vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by 71%.”

Built to the same safety standards as traditional models, electric buses don’t produce fumes or noise inside the cabin, says Ellis.

An electric bus can save a district about $140,000 over its lifetime. Though one can cost $100,000 to $120,000 more to buy than a diesel vehicle, it runs three to four times more efficiently. An electric bus also saves on maintenance costs since its battery-operated system has very few moving parts and doesn’t need oil or filters, says Ellis.

“Upfront costs can be steep, but the longer-term benefits of the package shouldn’t be dismissed because of that,” says Ellis.

Factors to consider with zero-emission buses

Districts across California have purchased zero-emission vehicles over the past decade. In 2017, the California Energy Commission launched The School Bus Replacement Program to retrofit and replace old diesel school buses in disadvantaged and low-income communities. The program’s funding helps districts purchase electric buses and provides an additional $60,000 per vehicle for charging stations and workforce training.

Charging infrastructure is an important financial aspect to consider beyond vehicle cost, says Tomas Ortiz, an energy analyst with the California Energy Commission. Systems can run from $4,000 to $20,000.

Fleet operators should employ networked chargers, commonly referred to as smart chargers, so they can plan their vehicle charging for when rates are at their lowest, says Ortiz.

The distance that vehicles can run between charges can be impacted by local terrain and if air conditioning is being used.

Music to community ears

White Plains Public Schools in New York picked up students using five new electric buses when the 2018-19 school year began. The Type C vehicles—which can travel 70 to 80 miles between charges—have been integrated smoothly, says Sergio Alfonso, transportation supervisor for the district.

“The only time the vehicles have been in for maintenance is for scheduled work,” says Alfonso. “We’ve had a few lightbulbs go out—nothing out of the ordinary.”

The electric buses do morning runs, and then get cleaned and charged before afternoon routes. At the end of the day, the vehicles are cleaned and charged again.

The district and its transportation provider, National Express, partnered to purchase the buses, which cost $365,000 each. But $220,000 in grants from New York state and power company Consolidated Edison lowered the price per vehicle to nearly that of a diesel bus.

Getting the buses on the road—from the idea stage to transporting students—took about two years, says Alfonso. Prior to the official launch, the district let students and parents see and board the buses at an elementary school.

The buses have also cut local noise pollution. The vehicles run so quietly that when one goes under 25 mph, a musical warning plays to alert inattentive students that a bus is coming.

“I can’t tell you how many calls I used to get a day about the diesel buses coming down the road at 6 a.m.,” says Alfonso. “I have yet to receive one call about the tones the new buses play.”