EPA unveils $1 billion for electric and low-emission school buses – The Washington Post

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For decades, American children have traveled to school in buses that spew pollution — diesel fumes that have been linked to asthma and other ailments.
If the Biden administration has its way, those humble yellow school buses will soon play a key role in the green-energy transition sweeping the nation.
On Monday, the administration announced nearly $1 billion for school districts to replace diesel buses with cleaner versions, including electric buses. The grants are aimed at protecting kids from harmful air pollution while curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.
The money comes from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, which authorized a total of $5 billion for cleaner school buses. The Environmental Protection Agency will dole out grants that will allow more than 280 school districts serving more than 7 million students nationwide to purchase more than 2,700 clean buses. Overall, the agency has already allocated nearly $2 billion of the $5 billion.
“Zero-emission school buses can and one day will be the American standard, and we’re hitting the accelerator on a cleaner and healthier future for all,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said on a Monday call with reporters.
School districts in low-income, rural and tribal communities account for about 86 percent of grant recipients, according to the EPA. Regan announced the funding during a Monday visit to Stone Mountain Middle School in Stone Mountain, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta that has struggled with poor air quality.
Environmentalists and public health advocates have applauded the Clean School Bus Program, saying it will benefit the children most dependent on school buses: students of color and those from low-income households. Studies have linked chronic exposure to diesel exhaust to higher rates of childhood asthma and cancer and found that it can worsen school performance.
Yet the transition to electric buses has been a bumpy ride for some school districts — especially ones with a lot of these vehicles.
A recent report by the EPA’s internal watchdog found that while districts haven’t had difficulty purchasing electric school buses, they have encountered problems charging them. The buses suck an enormous amount of power from the grid — a concern for districts that got enough federal funding to buy 20 to 25 buses but don’t have the infrastructure to deliver that much electricity.
Utility companies interviewed by the EPA’s inspector general said delays have resulted from a shortage of high-voltage transformers and the need to run additional power lines. One company said it could take nine months to two years to complete construction.
“The increased demand on utility companies may impact the timeliness of replacing diesel buses,” the EPA’s inspector general concluded, calling on school districts to coordinate better with their local power companies.
Some rural school districts have also found that in areas where charging stations are scarce, the electric buses are unable to cover the long distances between schools and students’ homes. In California, some districts in the state’s rural northern reaches have kept their diesel buses running while the new electric ones sit idle, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.
“Everybody sees the bright, beautiful, shiny school bus, and that gets all of the attention. But it’s the infrastructure that makes it work,” said Kevin Matthews, head of electrification at the school transportation provider First Student, which received a conditional grant from the EPA for 375 electric buses.
“Before you even apply for electric school bus funding, you need to sit down with your utility and look at what the options are,” Matthews said.
That collaboration was key for the Pontiac School District, located in a suburb north of Detroit, which is working with First Student to roll out 25 electric school buses this year and already has infrastructure in place to charge each bus overnight and all at the same time.
“We did a test drive and it was phenomenal — just the amount of noise reduced, the smell from the diesel is gone. It’s a better experience for all,” said district superintendent Kelley Williams.
Regardless of federal action, several states have forged ahead with plans for phasing out diesel buses. In 2021, Maryland passed a law requiring all newly purchased school buses to be electric by 2025. And in October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed similar legislation with requirements that will take effect in 2035.
In New York, which will bar school districts from buying diesel-burning school buses starting in 2027, the transition to electric buses was a “major topic of discussion” at a recent meeting of rural superintendents, said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association. Most rural districts are proceeding cautiously, he said, testing out one or two buses before transitioning their fleet. Some have already run into problems.
“In some cases, the electric utility provider or co-op, they’re saying we simply can’t provide what you need,” Pratt said, referring to power shortages. Cities, communities and towns will have to come up with infrastructure changes to make this effort work, he added.
Some Republican officials have objected to these plans, saying they will be too costly for school districts, despite the federal funding and some additional state funding. In New York, GOP state senators last week urged Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul to abandon a mandate that school districts buy only electric buses by 2027 and eliminate their fossil-fuel-powered buses by 2035.
In their letter to Hochul, the senators said that an electric school bus costs $400,000 to $450,000 — three times the price of a traditional diesel bus. They warned that school districts would pass on those “crushing” costs to New York taxpayers, who already pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation.
Proponents of electric buses counter that they are much cheaper to operate, saving school districts money in the long term. On average, it costs about 14 cents a mile for a bus to recharge with electricity, compared with 49 cents per mile for a bus to refuel with diesel, according to leading school bus maker Blue Bird.
In addition, electric buses can act as giant batteries, storing surplus electricity when they aren’t in use. That means school districts can make money by selling power back to the grid during times of peak demand.
“During the day and also in the summer, when these school buses are not used as much, they can be used as batteries,” said Katherine García, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign. “This new technology is really beneficial for the community.”

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