Could electric school buses make the grade in Northeast Ohio?

In the thick of summer, school buses may be the last thing on many families’ minds, but for sustainability-minded school officials, it’s a different story. Electric school buses—battery-powered, zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs)—are now operating in multiple test markets across the country, including several in cold-weather regions. And in the near future, these familiar-looking but innovative machines could be humming around the streets of Cleveland.

“If we can get funding and all the planets line up correctly, I could definitely see us investing in some electric buses,” says Michael Bower, Fleet Maintenance Manager with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. “Our school board has always been very open to new and better technology, especially if it benefits the students.”

Jouley electric school busIn February, Bower submitted a letter of interest in an electric school bus pilot program to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Partial funding for this program is coming from a portion of the $75 million the state EPA will soon receive from the settlement of the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” emissions testing scandal—with up to $3 million designated to test the viability of electric school buses in Ohio.

Though several school districts have expressed interest in the agency’s electric school bus program, Cleveland’s chances for a successful grant proposal will be enhanced by benefit of a dubious distinction. Based on current air quality measurements, Cuyahoga and its adjacent counties are one of three First Priority areas in the state for receiving Volkswagen settlement funds. (The other two areas are around Columbus and Cincinnati).

“We’ve had a lot of interest in electric school buses, [but] we would want [the electric schoo lbus pilot programs] to be in one or more of the First Priority counties,” says Carolyn Watkins, the Administrator of Diesel Emission Reduction Grants at the Ohio EPA.

Plugging into progress 

Since the announcement of the Volkswagen settlement, the Environmental Law and Policy Center has been consulting with state environmental organizations and school districts throughout the Midwest over how to use the Dieselgate funds—with Ohio emerging as a trailblazer.

“We’re really pleased with the Ohio EPA,” says Susan Mudd, a Senior Policy Advocate at ELPC. “Ohio was the first state to carve out money in its VW plans for electric school buses. Since Ohio did that, Illinois has now carved out money in its first draft plan, we expect a carve out in Michigan, and there’s even the possibility for a carve out in Indiana.”

Given the nature of their operation, school buses are an almost ideal candidate for electrification. Many school buses make two short trips a day with long idle periods between uses—factors which would allow an electric vehicle to charge and operate with relative ease. An electric school bus also does not emit any of the diesel fumes which are particularly harmful to children.

Seeing the advantages of these vehicles, California schools have used the state’s alternative energy subsidies to invest in hundreds of electric schoo lbuses. But this is not just a fair-weather technology: Massachusetts began incorporating ZEVs into their school bus fleets in 2016; an electric school bus has operated over this past winter in Minnesota; and, in Canada, electric schoolbuses have been deployed in Quebec and Alberta. As the number of pilot programs has increased, major school bus manufacturers such as Blue Bird and Thomas Built have joined ZEV makers in the growing market for electric school buses.

Possible speed bumps

Yet for all the interest in electric school buses, there are obstacles to overcome in their deployment, the most significant of which are availability and cost.

“Electric school bus manufacturers are really all just gearing up for large-scale production,’ says Watkins, who also notes that electric school buses are currently over three times as expensive as comparable vehicles that run on diesel or alternative fossil fuels. The Ohio EPA will also require school districts to fund at least 25 percent of an electric school bus pilot program, which means a single vehicle for one school could cost close to six figures.

Yet CMSD’s Bower does not believe current costs will prevent the district from pursuing these vehicles. “Actually, [the Ohio EPA’s funding] would put the cost of an electric school bus probably close to what you would pay for a conventional diesel-powered school bus,” he reasons.

Bower also states that the district’s fleet of 49 propane buses—each slightly more expensive than a comparable diesel vehicle—has actually saved money for the district due to lower maintenance costs. Since electric buses have far fewer parts, additional savings may be realized, although Bower notes that he has not yet seen figures for ancillary costs such as charging stations and replacement batteries.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District propane busesPaving the way for the future

Though Cuyahoga County is in pole position, don’t expect to see an electric school bus coming down the street before 2019; the Ohio EPA is still creating its guidelines for the pilot programs and doesn’t expect to request grant proposals until the fall. In addition, should CMSD submit a grant proposal that is approved by the Ohio EPA this fall, there might not be enough time to purchase and equip an electric school bus for the 2019-20 school year.

In the meantime, the Dieselgate funding will help improve Ohio’s existing fleet of traditional school buses and public transit buses. Many of the vehicles in Priority One communities were put into service prior to the tightening of diesel emissions standards in 2007, so nearly half of the state’s Volkswagen funds will be used to update aging diesel fleets with vehicles that operate with cleaner engines or use alternative fuels (such as compressed natural gas or propane).

But when the funds for electric school buses are eventually put to use by Ohio schools, Mudd expects the impact of these vehicles will be dramatic.

“When there’s a new technology, people will try it, other people will see it, kids will ride on it and talk about it, teachers and staff and superintendents will hear about them and ask about them at football games or band concerts,” says Mudd. “Their experiences can grow in an organic way, in a way where nobody feels like they’re being forced to do anything but [recognize] it’s a cool option. And that seems like not a bad way for things to go, actually.”