States Steadily Pursuing Fuel Alternatives for Bus Fleets

Marks the move away from diesel- and gas-powered school buses and toward modern electric models to save money and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
by Skip Descant, Government Technology | October 8, 2019 AT 3:01 AM
Shutterstock

Electrification in transportation is reaching well past passenger cars, as states move forward with the adoption of electric school buses and other vehicles.

Virginia plans to make $20 million available early next year in the form of competitive grants to fund the purchase of electric school buses. The funding comes from the state’s share of the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust.

“The transportation sector is the largest source of climate pollution in Virginia,” said Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, in an email. “As a pediatric doctor, Gov. Northam also understands the harmful effects of diesel-powered school buses on children’s health. This initiative represents a strategic investment in our schools, our children's health, and the future of Virginia's transportation system.”

Other states are also moving forward with the electrification of their bus fleets. Hawaii plans to apply more than half of its Volkswagen settlement money to the purchase of electric school buses, public transit and other vehicles.

The settlement follows the 2016 Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, which resulted in some $14.7 billion allocated to the Environmental Mitigation Trust. States were given $2.7 billion of this amount to be used to reduce diesel emissions.

Rhode Island plans to apply $10 million in settlement funds toward the purchase or lease of electric transit buses and required charging infrastructure. As part of that plan, roughly 20 diesel buses will be retired.

One of the key questions among transit officials revolves around the battery range for electric buses, and how well they perform in all weather environments, said Barbara Polichetti, director of public affairs at the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA).

"In the spring, we ran three buses in 'shadow service,'" said Polichetti, adding this involved operating the buses without passengers.

"The leased buses are now carrying passengers, and we are collecting even more data," she added. "For now, they are mostly being used on one of our urban core routes in Providence."

RIPTA will explore purchase options for 16 to 20 zero-emissions buses in 2021.

The state of Washington is also using some of its settlement funds to transition to electric fleets, even including the introduction of electric ferries to the mix.

Back in Virginia, that program allows school districts to be reimbursed up to $265,000 per battery-electric bus, including the charging infrastructure. 

“There are no electric school buses operating in Virginia at this time,” said Ann Regn, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, who added the state is also using its Volkswagen funds “to leverage the deployment of all electric public transit buses and public charging infrastructure for light duty electric vehicles.”

Virginia was allocated some $93.6 million by the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, with only a little more than half of the money earmarked. Roughly 44 percent of the funding is still to be divvied up. However, some $14 million will be applied toward electrifying transit vehicles, according to DEQ documents.

Replacing all of the nation’s school buses with electric versions is estimated to reduce greenhouse gases by 5.3 million tons annually, according to a report by Environment America, a member-supported environmental advocacy group. Environment America also estimates school districts stand to save $2,000 a year in fuel for each electric bus they put into service, and another $4,400 a year in reduced maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, many transit agencies have been transitioning diesel-powered buses to compressed natural gas-powered vehicles and hybrid-electric or battery-electric buses. However, replacing the diesel transit vehicles still in operation stands to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2 million tons annually.

By all indications, electrification in transportation seems to be taking off. Some 59 percent of drivers on the West Coast plan to purchase an electric vehicle as their next car, according to a recent survey conducted by West Monroe Partners, a business and technology consulting firm. And more than half of those who say they plan to buy an EV are planning to make the purchase in the next two years.

In 2018, California, Oregon and Washington posted the highest EV market shares in the nation. Roughly 7.8 percent of cars in the Golden State are EVs, while Washington’s EV market share is at 4.3 percent and Oregon’s sits at 3.4 percent, according to a report by the National Governors Association.