Ditch diesel for electric school buses? NJ advocates say that would pay off in the long run

Clean-energy supporters say electric buses could supply power back to the grid when not transporting kids
Credit: (AP Photo/Matt York, File)
File photo

As the state tries to electrify its transportation sector, one focus has been on electric school buses. But there hasn’t been much success largely because of the larger upfront costs of purchasing electric vehicles instead of diesel buses.

Clean-energy advocates contend, however, that school districts could offset those costs by having electric vehicles supply power, stored in the vehicles’ batteries, back to the regional electricity grid when they are not transporting students to and from school.

If so, that could speed up the rollout of electric school buses in New Jersey, according to environmental groups who are urging school districts to stop purchasing diesel buses and transition to all-electric buses by 2030 in a new report.

“While electric buses can save and even earn money for schools over the lifespan of the bus, the initial price tag often presents a hurdle for cash-strapped districts,’’ said Hayley Berliner, a clean-energy associate for Environment New Jersey’s Research. & Policy Center.

The report, by Environment New Jersey and the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group’s Law and Policy Center, suggests school districts could recover those upfront costs and more, by using idle school buses to send stored energy back to the grid at times of peak demand, and get paid for that. Those times occur typically when buses are finished delivering students home in late afternoon and early evening.

Calculating the potential savings

With utility investments and advancements in electric vehicle technology, the report argues schools could save more than $8,000 per year, per bus. But that would require utility investments, which, to date, regulators in New Jersey have not approved.

Both Public Service Electric & Gas and Atlantic City Electric proposed in recent filings to fund electric bus programs, but the state Board of Public Utilities deferred acting on those programs until it convened another proceeding concerning electrification of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, including buses.

“Electric school buses are highly strategic — they reduce operating costs for the districts, lower harmful emissions in the local community and provide compelling evidence that electric vehicles are ready for mainstream adoption,’’ said Mark Warner, a vice president of Gabel Associates, an energy consulting firm based in Highland Park.

Electric school buses, despite their high upfront costs, can save districts operating money over the long term because the electricity costs less than the diesel fuel that powers conventional school buses.

But a lot of work — and investments by utilities — would be needed to sort out the issues in transitioning to electric school buses, according to the report. “Utility investment would help ease the transition and accelerate us toward a zero-emission electric future,’’ Berliner said.

The Murphy administration, pressed by environmental-justice advocates in communities already overburdened with pollution, announced a $100 million investment in electrifying medium- and heavy-duty vehicles including $10 million for 27 electric school buses.

There also is a bill (A-1971) that would establish a pilot program in three school districts across the state to determine whether electric school buses can deliver both savings and added revenues to districts that invest in electrified buses.

“Pollution generated from school buses harms our children’s health and worsens climate change,’’ said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Mercer), and a co-sponsor of the legislation. “Adoption of electric school buses reduces emissions, is healthier for our kids, and saves money in the long run.’’

“We need to get the pilot program off the ground,’’ Zwicker added. “Let’s get the data we need.’’

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