Make school buses electric, advocates urge

Few students ride green-energy vehicles to school now; changing that would cut emissions
Credit: (Unrated Studio from Pixabay)
School bus

As the state moves to electrify its transportation sector, one significant segment remains largely left out — the more than 15,000 buses transporting kids to and from New Jersey schools each day.

Few students, if any, make that trip on electric school buses, though some communities have taken steps to phase out diesel-fueled buses and switch to zero-emission vehicles now in use in 33 other states. Only 1,439 electric school buses are now in use, less than 1% of all school buses on the road now.

Clean-energy advocates, however, are pushing to change that dynamic, urging state officials to step up funding and incentives to get students out of buses that expose them and surrounding communities to unhealthy pollutants caused by the combustion of diesel engines.

At a day-long webinar, sponsored by the Electrification Coalition and World Resources Institute, various speakers made a case for widespread deployment of electric school buses in New Jersey.

Besides improving public health and accelerating the decarbonization of the transportation sector, that step could reduce operating expenses for school districts, lead to cleaner air and create new jobs, according to Justin Balik of WRI.

The biggest hurdle to converting diesel buses to zero-emission vehicles is the higher upfront cost of the latter. Electric school buses can cost upward of $300,000, triple the cost of the more conventional diesel bus, said James Woods of First Student, a company that is one of the largest providers of transportation in North America.

“The key barriers are financial — first and foremost,’’ agreed Peg Hanna, assistant director of the Division of Air Quality in the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Still, First Student said it hopes to convert 20,000 buses to electric by 2030, Woods said. Other electric-bus suppliers were also bullish about prospects for converting the nation’s fleet of nearly 500,000 school buses to electric buses.

Meeting climate-change goals

Those goals align themselves with the Biden administration’s target of electrifying the nation’s entire fleet of school buses by 2030, according to Balik. Two key bills pending in Congress could jump-start the program, according to U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We will never achieve the goals of the Paris accord unless we electrify the transportation sector,’’ Pallone said during the morning session of the webinar.

The federal infrastructure bill provides $5 billion for new school buses, half to be spent on electric school buses. In addition, the so-called reconciliation bill pending before Congress would include $13.5 billion to provide for new investments in building out electric charging infrastructure, he said.

“Whatever we do nationally, it will only complement what states are doing,’’ Pallone said.

State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) plans to introduce a bill after the November election that would establish a three-year pilot program, providing $15 million per year to fund electric-bus purchases in 16 legislative districts, including at least one environmental justice community each year.

Diegnan called it a good start on tackling the problem. “We have gone light years from where we started, but we still have a long way to go,’’ he said.

Other state agencies also are making plans to invest in electric buses, using funds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and a settlement with Volkswagen over a scandal involving emissions testing for its diesel vehicles.

“This is an area ripe for investment,’’ said Pallavi Madakasira, director of clean energy for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

The move to transition to electric buses is part of a statewide effort to convert medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to zero-emission vehicles, a big source of the 42% of climate pollutants emitted by the transportation sector.

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