Electric buses are coming to a school near you — but are they more than a fad?
The Environmental Protection Agency is beginning to send nearly 5,000 electric buses to school districts around the country after a nearly two-year ramp-up. A few Midwestern districts weigh in on how the new buses are working so far.
The yellow buses lined up after school in the Ralls County School District look nearly identical. Except two of them aren’t like the others: they run on batteries.
“It’s not as loud as the other ones,” said Ian Joiner, a ninth grader who climbs on board one of the buses, driven by his dad, Eric Joiner.
The rural school district in northeastern Missouri is one of the first in the state to receive electric buses from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program. The federal initiative has sent at least one electric bus to nearly every U.S. state with thousands more on the way. So far, the federal government has invested $1.8 billion in the program through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and is promising to replace more than 5,000 buses.
As more and more school districts try out this new technology, reviews are coming in.
“Well, I’m in love with the buses so far,” said John Wiles, transportation director at Shawnee Public Schools, on the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s tribal lands in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
“Of course they've had their little nicks and problems. I think any bus that we get brand new has glitches from the factory … but once those were repaired, the buses have been doing excellent.”
Wiles had been thinking about the electric transition for a few years and even attended an electric bus conference in Indianapolis last summer. His district has two electric buses so far and should receive two more in the next month.
“It doesn't bother me to be at the beginning of something new and innovative,” Wiles said.
One of the biggest differences he’s noticed is how quiet the buses are — he’s wondering if that might lead to fewer student behavior issues on routes. Wiles said he was also looking for ways to cut back on air quality issues for student health.
“A major benefit is the fact that these produce zero emissions and so they can sit there in line waiting for the kids to get out without creating any kind of breathing problems whatsoever,” Wiles said.
The lower greenhouse gas emissions from the electric buses also could help slow climate change. It takes about a third the amount of carbon dioxide to make and run the electric buses compared to their fossil fuel counterparts, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. That can vary with the makeup of local electricity generation.
While there are a lot of benefits, there’s one big downside — the price tag.
A new electric school bus can cost around $375,000, which is about three to four times more than a new diesel bus. Districts also have to install expensive charging infrastructure, which is covered by the grants but can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.
Yet over their lifetime, the buses are expected to generate savings. Electricity is less expensive per mile compared to diesel. Maintenance is also cheaper, in part because the buses don’t need oil changes and regenerative braking cuts down on brake changes. But those savings don’t offset the up-front costs, at least not yet.
District officials are doing the math as they apply for the EPA grants — and many say if they had to spend district money, they wouldn’t have bought electric buses.
“I'm not a, you know, save the planet type person,” said Jeff Dicks, superintendent of Albert City-Truesdale in northern Iowa. “I think we need to be considering all that. But you can't spend four times, three and a half times what you would for a regular bus just to feel good about that.”
Dicks’ school district got an electric bus in December through the EPA grant. He subbed for a driver on the bus recently and said the kids are especially excited about how quiet the bus is. During the recent cold snap in the Midwest, the electric bus kept up, using a little more energy, but not enough to cause a problem.
But overall, Dicks said without the grant, he couldn’t justify buying the expensive buses.
“We actually have a solar field that provides electricity to our entire building,“ Dicks said. “But that did make sense. That pays for itself in eight years.”
That’s why this federal program is so important, according to Sue Gander, the director of the Electric School Bus Initiative. Her organization is part of the World Resource Institute and is pushing for the entire U.S. fleet to go electric.
“The federal money, particularly in the last couple of years, has been really instrumental in making a lot of this momentum possible,” Gander said.
Through the EPA program and others, Gander said about 8,500 electric school buses have been promised or delivered to school districts across the country. That represents a big increase in recent years, but is still a small fraction of the 480,000 U.S. school bus fleet.
Back in Ralls County, Transportation Supervisor Eric Joiner drives one of the electric buses through a typical route over country roads between fields. His drivers are on gravel more often than pavement in the almost 350 square mile district.
Joiner is really excited about these buses.
“I think it's fun — I like driving a school bus better than my own personal vehicle,” Joiner said, laughing.
But he has also had some negative experiences. He gets what some call “range anxiety” on his long, rural routes; one time his battery got down to 8%.
“When you start getting that low, you start to kind of panic a little bit, especially when you got kids on board,” Joiner said.
There are also challenges that are specific to rural districts. Because their routes are so long, the Ralls County drivers sometimes park their school buses at their homes overnight, cutting down on their overall driving time, which is regulated by the state. That’s not possible with the electric buses that need to be charged at the district’s bus garage overnight.
”It cuts into drivers’ time; it's less time that our drivers are on the road too, especially when you run into rural communities,” Joiner said.
That, along with a technical issue that took one of the buses out of service early on, makes it hard for Joiner to recommend the vehicles.
Still, he says this program has been great for cash-strapped rural school districts, mostly because it meant free buses.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.