A row of school buses.
Credit: dhendrix73 / Creative Commons

No school district left behind. That’s the story in a nutshell after Virginia distributed $10.5 million statewide this month to encourage schools to replace dirty diesel buses with models powered by electricity or propane.

Expected competition for the first round of grants from the Department of Environmental Quality never materialized, so the agency was able to meet the financial needs of each of the 19 districts applying for a share of the state’s Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust money.

“If you came to us and your projects were eligible, we funded you,” said Angela Conroy, senior planner with DEQ’s Air and Renewable Energy Division. After an agency review of the submitted paperwork, “that’s what we recommended.”

In all, the $10.5 million will help to fund 83 new school buses — 39 fueled by electricity and batteries and 44 that run on propane. DEQ estimates they will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10,000 tons annually, the equivalent of removing 2,000 cars from the road.

Initially, when schools filled out applications to meet a late June deadline, DEQ had $10 million in Volkswagen money available. The agency had dedicated $9.25 million of that for battery-electric buses and associated chargers, and set the remainder aside for propane buses.

However, applications for propane buses totaled only $420,146, far short of the $750,000 allotted. Meanwhile, requests for electric buses exceeded the $9.25 million limit by $895,110. DEQ officials opted to dip into extra mitigation trust money to cover that deficit, Conroy said.

The “leftover” money for propane buses will be added to the second round of $10 million available to schools this October.

In spring, DEQ had put forth criteria to address equity issues while removing the dirtiest diesel buses from fleets.

For instance, each district could apply for funding up to 10 buses, but there were no guarantees the award would match the ask. Also, preference would go to districts with old, high-mileage buses and that enroll large numbers of students in free and reduced-price meal programs.

Those measures became less relevant when competition wasn’t nearly as fierce as initially anticipated. 

In August 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam earmarked $20 million of the $2.7 billion environmental mitigation settlement that Virginia reached with Volkswagen toward electrifying school buses. Months later, the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, postponing the program rollout.

Conroy is convinced that delays, the coronavirus and coordinating grant timing with school budgets suppressed school district participation, despite an array of outreach and education that DEQ coordinated.

“We are going to look at lessons learned,” she said about anticipated tweaks before October. “We are where we are and maybe more school districts will apply in the fall.”

Fairfax County scores big

With an award of $2.65 million for 10 electric buses last Thursday, Fairfax County Public Schools is at the head of the class. Loudoun County, its neighbor to the west in northern Virginia, was granted $1.44 million for six buses. Another 12 school districts received grant money for between one and three electric buses.

“We’re very pleased we were awarded grant money for 10 more electric buses,” said Fairfax’s vehicle maintenance coordinator Joseph Welborn. “Our goal is to remain positive and push forward, but we are going to tread lightly and ease into this.”

The 10 new buses, likely to come aboard next spring, will more than double the eight electric buses in its current inventory. The latter were acquired via a separate Dominion Energy program.

Fairfax County is the birthplace of the push for a statewide transition to electric school buses.

Bobby Monacella, who co-leads the county’s Mothers Out Front chapter, is thrilled that the district that educated her two daughters is taking huge strides to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases.

“The bottom line is that every electric bus on the ground means a reduction in greenhouse gases and the particulate matter that leads to asthma and other health problems,” she said. “We have to get to work and solve these problems so our kids have a future that isn’t engulfed in the flames of climate change.”

Several years ago, Monacella joined other environmental advocates at school board meetings to clamor for a transition away from diesel. Fairfax, which replaces roughly 100 older diesel buses a year, at first figured it could meet advocates’ request to electrify its fleet of 1,625 diesel-powered buses by 2030. However, the realization that electric buses cost at least three times as much as traditional models prompted the district to delay that optimistic goal another five years, to 2035. 

“The school board was incredibly supportive, but we realized it was a huge amount of money,” she said, never mind issues such as battery range, scheduling and other logistics that district transportation managers have to coordinate. “But the district’s positive response is what motivated us to take on a larger, statewide effort.”

During this past legislative session, Mothers Out Front was instrumental in jumpstarting an ambitious plan to convert Virginia’s fleet of 17,000 diesel-powered school buses to quieter, sleeker and cleaner electric models over a decade. HB 2118, while unfunded, is the handiwork of Del. Mark Keam, a Fairfax County Democrat who had sponsored similar legislation that failed last year.

Briefly, this year’s version requires establishing a grant fund via the state DEQ to help school districts statewide cover expenses for electric buses and related charging infrastructure. It is designed to prioritize grant requests from districts in regions with high asthma rates and poor air quality. A stakeholder group with expertise on all aspects of electrification is structured to offer guidance to districts figuring out how to navigate a greener transportation future. 

“We’re the first state in the country to do something like this, so our message to the governor is: Let’s lead,” Monacella said. “Northam needs to make this a priority.”

Translate that this way: Northam, in the last months of his four-year term, should use his bully pulpit to direct some of Virginia’s yet-to-be-determined portion of federal transportation money into the school bus electrification fund to be administered by DEQ.

“While celebrating every electric bus on the ground, we need to keep pushing,” she said. “We need this funded so the state can use that money wisely and, most importantly, equitably — so smaller districts aren’t left behind.” 

Federal money not guaranteed 

Federal dollars could become available if electric school buses become a line item in the budgetary reconciliation package Congress is now negotiating. 

And separately, Virginia environmental advocates are none too pleased that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, recently passed by the U.S. Senate but on hold in the House, includes only $5 billion for the transition to electric and alternative-fuel school buses. That amount is nowhere near the $20 billion President Joe Biden originally proposed when he unveiled the American Jobs Plan — enough to electrify one-fifth of the nation’s 480,000 school buses.

The catch is that the $5 billion would be distributed to states via the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so it can’t be included in the grant fund included in Keam’s law.

Blair St. Ledger-Olson, a manager with the advocacy group Generation 180, said such federal restrictions emphasize the need for state and local governments to lead the acceleration of electrification.

“We can’t exclusively rely on the federal government to help tackle our country’s leading source of greenhouse gases: the transportation sector,” St. Ledger-Olson said.

Delegates and senators evidently found Keam’s bipartisan resolution to be far more palatable than a continued, but thus far unsuccessful, legislative effort by Dominion Energy to fold more electric school buses into the utility’s expansive vehicle-to-grid plans.

During its last two sessions, lawmakers repeatedly rejected Dominion’s attempts to move beyond a 50-bus phase one pilot program and add at least another 1,000 electric buses in its service territory. Program costs would have been recoverable through the utility’s base rates. Opponents criticized most of the Dominion measures as monopoly overreach that would have raised customers’ bills and handcuffed public schools to the utility’s profit incentives.

The starter plan Dominion announced in August 2019 invited schools within its broad service area to apply for a share of the 50 buses. Initially, the utility selected Fairfax County and 15 other localities, based on the value of batteries to the local grid. The idea was to grow the program so the bus batteries could serve as energy storage to support the integration of distributed renewable energy.

Fairfax County, which welcomed its Dominion allotment between January and March, put its eight electric buses in service from May through July. 

They won’t be in use — as initially planned — when Fairfax’s academic year begins this week because of the discovery of a software glitch that allows the buses to exceed the state-mandated speed limit of 60 miles per hour. That malfunction prompted the state Department of Education to pull all the pilot program electric buses out of service until it can be remedied in the next month or so.

Along the way, Dominion also narrowed phase one to 15 localities because of shifting budget priorities at some school districts caused by impacts of COVID-19.

Dominion selected Thomas Built Buses as the vendor for the electric buses, which are at least triple the cost of a diesel model. Under the pilot, school districts pay the cost of a diesel bus — roughly $109,000 — and Dominion covers the difference. 

The price of each electric bus in Fairfax, with mandated upgrades, rang in at $376,000. The schools paid $130,000 of that total, with Dominion also covering the charging equipment. The utility owns the bus batteries and propulsion systems. 

Coordinating a fleet flip

DEQ’s grants cover the price difference between diesel and cleaner buses — up to $265,000 per electric bus or up to $20,000 per propane bus.

Conroy noted that Virginia has no law outlining when a school bus should be retired. Buses built in and before 2006 are the biggest polluters because the U.S. EPA didn’t institute standards until model year 2007.

She is well aware that some Virginians question why DEQ would replace one type of fossil fuel — diesel — with another — propane — instead of going 100% electric.

“It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s still better than kids riding an old, dirty diesel bus,” Conroy said, adding that a brand new propane bus is a huge leap forward when accounting for the nitrogen oxides and particulate matter emissions. “This is about the health benefits for children.”

DEQ awarded grants to the cities of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News and the counties of Chesterfield and Halifax for between four and 10 propane buses apiece.

“Propane is not as sexy as electric buses, but we think at this time it’s necessary to have alternatives,” Conroy said, adding that numerous districts are already heavily invested in propane infrastructure.

Fairfax’s Welborn said he expects to place orders for the 10 new electric buses by the end of September. He will be reviewing options offered by three viable manufacturers — Thomas Built, Blue Bird and IC Bus — and can split the order if it’s practical.

“If I had a crystal ball and could guess, I’d say they would arrive by March or April,” he said, adding that no delivery date is certain when the pandemic has interrupted supply chains in every industry.

Another challenge is charging infrastructure. The district could continue collaborating with Dominion or devise its own solution. Installations are tricky and site-specific because Fairfax’s buses are parked strategically at 130 lots in the sprawling urban county with unpredictable traffic.

For the initial eight buses, infrastructure was installed at the Stonecroft Transportation Facility near Westfield High School because it met Dominion’s grid-access requirements. Routes cover adjacent neighborhoods.

In the meantime, Welborn and his colleagues are beginning to review responses they have received from companies interested in coordinating the school district’s down-the-road electrification of its whole fleet. In about six months, the county will issue a request for proposals to gather specifics on the cost of coordinating every detail of the transformation. 

“I’m hesitant to buy 100 electric buses right off the bat because the technology is not there yet,” Welborn said. “But this is the direction we want to move because it’s promising.”

He is optimistic that second- and third-generation buses will evolve, as was the case with flat-screen televisions.

“Years from now, people will say, ‘Wow, look at the changes,’” Welborn said. “The battery will be half the size and the bus will travel twice as far.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.