The beginning of September signifies the beginning of the school year for many students. Across the country, 26 million, or over half of school-aged children are transported by 480,000 school buses.1 In an average school year, each bus travels about 12,000 miles, using 1,714 gallons of diesel fuel2 and producing about 17 MMT of CO2 emissions,3 as well as other harmful emissions such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Electric school buses offer a viable alternative to diesel buses, and offer a solution to the health and environmental impacts of burning diesel fuel.

A relatively new option, electric school buses are being tested in early-stage pilot programs in both California and Massachusetts. The growing interest in electric school bus deployment is evident in the increase of funding opportunities for ZEV school buses: Blue Bird, a major school bus manufacturer, is the recipient of a grant to manufacture new electric bus models;4  three school districts in Sacramento, California, received a grant for an electric school bus pilot with funds from their cap-and-trade program;5 and the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources awarded grants to four districts participating in an electric school bus Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) pilot program.6

Photo: Kipp Jones, flickr

The Massachusetts pilot is of particular interest, as it seeks to demonstrate the feasibility of incorporating V2G technology, through which the electric school buses connect to the grid while not in use, allowing for two-way charging and battery storage. Because most school buses are in use for about 5 hours each weekday on predictable schedules, they are good candidates for V2G for battery storage and improved management of grid-level supply and demand.7

Current acquisition costs for electric school buses are between $250,000 to $300,000—roughly $100,000 to$120,000 more than a diesel school bus. However, the use of electricity to power the buses would displace significant fuel costs over the vehicle’s lifetime. For example, an electric school bus pilot in California is expected to save the host school district $10,000 annually in fuel and maintenance costs.8 There are also a number of potential funding sources to assist with the upfront purchase cost, including funding from the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, Volkswagen Settlement Funds, and state programs such as California’s vouchers through the Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Program. Prices for batteries are expected to decline significantly in the future, too, especially as demand increases. A study through the California Air Resources Board (CARB) indicated a possible 41% reduction in battery price based on an increase from 300 to 10,000 battery systems produced per year.9

Electric school buses are an interesting alternative to diesel and are on a path to become an increasingly beneficial clean energy technology. As the electric school bus market develops, the financial feasibility of electric buses will continue to grow, and more information about the successes and limitations of electric school buses will become available as pilot programs mature.