A coalition of clean energy groups hosted an “Electric School Bus Midwest Road Tour” last month with stops in several cities, including this stop in Chicago. Credit: Environmental Law & Policy Center

It’s a childhood memory for many Americans: the yellow school bus with uncomfortable vinyl seats, a cantankerous driver and the ever-present smell of diesel.

But at least the olfactory part of that equation could change if electric vehicle proponents get their way. They envision electric school buses that eliminate diesel emissions as a benefit for school budgets, the environment and public health — especially for kids, since idling buses mean emissions accumulating around school buildings and inside the buses themselves.

With many school districts facing budget crises, replacing bus fleets and obtaining charging infrastructure hardly seems realistic.

But school officials, clean energy groups and even utilities are hoping that funds from the settlement of the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal will provide an initial crop of electric school buses and charging infrastructure, helping to jump-start what could be an eventual national shift.

“There is no question that electric school buses are good for kids’ health — they are cleaner than the cleanest diesel bus,” said Janet McCabe, former acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. McCabe is now a senior law fellow with the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC).

“But they cost more and school districts don’t usually have a lot of cash lying around,” McCabe added. “So the time to get the buses into school systems is when there are funds to make up the difference.”

Utilities on board

Electric utilities aren’t traditionally seen as players in school transportation. But the utilities Duke, AEP, ComEd, DTE, Consumers Energy and Indianapolis Power & Light Company (IP&L) are all backing the push to use Volkswagen settlement funds for electric school buses in the Midwest.

Representatives of these utilities described the idea as in keeping with their larger commitment to clean energy and electrification of vehicle fleets.

For example, Dan Weiss, director of environmental policy for Duke Energy Indiana, said the utility purchases electric vehicles for 5 percent of its own fleet and plans to increase the proportion.

While the amount of electricity sold to charge buses for a few school districts would be relatively small in terms of a utility’s entire customer base, it’s a new source of demand at a time when utilities are worried about distributed solar and energy efficiency reducing their revenues. And electric school buses could theoretically serve as vehicle-to-grid storage, sending power back to the grid when they are plugged in.

Lang Reynolds, Duke Energy’s electric transportation manager, noted that vehicle-to-grid storage faces obstacles including manufacturers’ reluctance to cover the practice under vehicle warranties, and no buses currently offer the technology. But he said it is “something to keep an eye on” in the future.

Reynolds and IP&L electric vehicle program manager Cole Willis both said that no grid upgrades would be needed in the near future to handle electric school buses in their service territories.

“But if large numbers of buses are installed at a single location, upgrades could become necessary and underscore the importance of utility involvement early in the planning stages of electric bus deployment,” Reynolds said.

“As utilities we want to be involved from the start,” concurred Willis. “We generally support electrification of transportation and it’s something our customers are asking for.”

Willis said IP&L was the first utility in the state to offer time of use billing programs specifically for electric vehicles. He said that the utility would likely further customize options for school districts if fleets of electric buses came on board.

Coalition of support

In addition to utility support, a coalition of environmental and clean energy groups known as Charge Up Midwest is promoting electric vehicle adoption as part of the Volkswagen settlement. In recent weeks the ELPC and other coalition members hosted an electric school bus tour of Midwest cities including Columbus, Ann Arbor, Chicago, Fort Wayne and Lansing, featuring the eLion electric school bus made by a Quebec company.

The eLion will become the Midwest’s first electric school bus carrying students when it begins rounds in a suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul school district this fall. Minnesota school authorities have said electric school buses could be used more widely with Volkswagen settlement funds.

States are still drafting plans about how to use the settlement funds, which total $420 million for the Midwest, according to the ELPC’s analysis.

Electric vehicles are specifically eligible for the funds, and states can also spend up to 15 percent of their allotted funds on light-duty electric vehicle infrastructure, including charging networks. In all, the settlement means $108 million for Illinois, $75 million for Ohio, $67 million for Wisconsin, $65 million for Michigan, $46 million for Minnesota, $41 million for Indiana and $21 million for Iowa, according to the ELPC.

Some state governments including Michigan have already included cleaner school or city buses — or both — in their draft plans, although that includes cleaner diesel and compressed natural gas buses, which are already widely used.

“The ELPC analysis showed if you look at various criteria — how many people do you impact, what’s the cost-benefit, whether the project will help move transformative technology forward — electric school buses are a really good way to use the funding,” said McCabe.

The VW settlement is aimed largely at reducing nitrogen oxide emissions, which Volkswagen masked in its diesel vehicles by cheating on emissions tests.

Electric vehicles are ultimately only as clean as the source of the electricity, which in many states is still largely coal-fired. But McCabe noted that “buses can charge on off-peak times, so they’re not putting demand on increased capacity at those (coal-burning) facilities.”

School buses may not be used at all in the summer, when electric demand is highest and air pollution is worst. And the range-anxiety that has hampered electric vehicle development as a whole is less of an issue.

“Their range between charges is predictable,” McCabe said. “The bus can do its morning rounds then go plug in if it needs to, then its afternoon rounds, and plug in overnight.”

An economic engine

Manufacturers of buses and their engines and other components are already working on electrification. The eLion was billed as the first electric school bus manufactured in North America, and U.S. companies including Colorado-based Proterra and GreenPower Motor Co. also make electric buses.

Cummins Engine, the multinational company that makes engines for many of the U.S.’s school bus fleets, will soon launch a diesel-electric hybrid school bus with a small diesel engine known as a range extender.

“It has a 4.5-liter diesel engine and electric power train, so it can run fully electric, and it solves the problem of if you were to do an extended range journey outside the normal route,” said Julie Furber, Cummins’ executive director of electrification. “In a school bus application, 90 percent of the time it’s running a normal route. For the 10 times a year it needs to take a team to the other side of the state or a school trip, you’ve got an engine to extend that range.”

Cummins works closely on electrification with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) companies that make school buses, and Cummins will also offer after-market parts and support for hybrid and electric buses, Furber said. While manufacturing these buses is still more expensive than traditional buses, she said the cost is bound to decrease.

“We believe subsidies will be available for a while to make it economically viable,” she said. “And the cost is coming down, technologies are improving. At some point in the future it will make sense just to buy” electric school buses regardless of incentives.

Schools would also recoup their investment over time on fuel savings. Electric buses can go five times farther on every $1 spent on fuel, according to Reynolds.

“We knew this was going to be an important technology,” said Furber. “The cost is becoming viable, the technology is good enough that the range is getting bigger. It made sense to us that if we want to maintain our share in the market, we should offer this to our customers.

“Electrification will come to all of our markets in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s all electric, time will tell. For something like long haul trucks, it’s some ways off. For buses, it’s happening already.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.