A row of school buses.
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A program funded by last year’s federal infrastructure law could help hundreds of Ohio school districts replace aging diesel school buses, but applications for this year’s funding competition are due within the next six weeks.

Clean air advocates are trying to get the word out about the U.S. EPA’s 2022 Clean School Bus Program, which offers rebates to help public schools replace up to 25 diesel buses with electric, propane, or compressed natural gas vehicles.

The program prioritizes rural and tribal schools, as well as districts with at least 20% of students living in poverty. More than 235 Ohio school districts are on the priority list.

The deadline for completed applications is Aug. 19.

Overall, the grant program is “wonderful,” especially for priority districts that want electric school buses, said attorney Susan Mudd, who heads the Environmental Law & Policy Center’s electric school bus campaign. “It removes the current significant upfront cost barrier and gets them into a situation where their long-term situation is so much better.”

Award amounts for priority districts range from up to $25,000 for propane buses up to $375,000 for battery-electric buses, plus up to $20,000 for electric vehicle charging. Districts that aren’t in priority categories would get roughly a third less funding if selected.

Last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law authorized the rebates as part of a five-year program. Half of the $500 million available through this year’s round of applications will go for zero-emission buses. The other half will be for clean school buses, which include CNG and propane vehicles.

Whether they’re on the priority list or not, school districts must meet several criteria. With some exceptions, diesel buses being replaced must be from model year 2010 or older, and districts must scrap them if they get funding. Private fleets can’t directly apply, but they may be able to enter into contracts for private fleet buses if new buses will serve the districts for at least five years after delivery.

The EPA will review applications in September. The agency will select winning applicants in random order, but priority provides advantages, both in getting awards and in the amount of the awards. Notifications will go out in October.

Cleaner air and healthier rides

Electric school buses will get kids into healthier air situations, Mudd said. America’s current school bus fleet is roughly 95% diesel-powered. Backwash from exhaust, leaky crankcases and faulty floorboards make pollution a problem inside the buses, too. Levels of some harmful pollutants inside a diesel bus can be four to 12 times higher than the general levels of outside air.

Electric school buses also reduce outdoor pollution. The current U.S. school bus fleet emits roughly 5.3 million tons of pollution each year, including more than 2 million tons of greenhouse gases that drive climate change. Research links diesel air pollution to increased asthma risks and other health problems.

However, Mudd noted, the priority guidelines, which favor rural districts over urban areas, don’t have any criteria for non-attainment areas. Those are areas that fail to meet Clean Air Act requirements for certain pollutants.

Multiple Ohio counties didn’t meet EPA’s most recent 8-hour ozone standard for the past several years, and some counties failed on the sulfur dioxide standard. Some districts in those counties are on the EPA priority list, but not all.

Similarly, Cook County, Illinois, has failed to meet the 8-hour ozone standard. Yet Chicago Public Schools was not on the EPA’s priority list when it came out in May.

“CPS serves more low-income students (many of whom live in areas suffering from poor air quality) than the entire student body in many districts included on the priority list,” said a June 17 letter from both Illinois senators and a dozen congressional representatives. Letting large school districts designate schools or subdistricts would let historically disadvantaged schools fully benefit from the program, they said.

The congressional members also objected to EPA’s requirement that districts contract for replacement of specific old buses if they have contracted for diesel-powered service but now want zero-emission buses. EPA should facilitate those arrangements, instead of placing the burden on schools, they wrote.

“The school districts that we know of so far in this situation are school districts that tend to be primarily minority kids in minority-led school districts,” Mudd said. However, the law “does not talk about replacing the bus. The idea here was to replace the ride that the child is having.”

Money matters

“The capital costs for electric vehicles in general are still quite high, even compared to other alternative fuels, so these programs are really important right now,” said Brandon Jones, consulting services manager for Clean Fuels Ohio. Some communities in the Power a Clean Future Ohio consortium have expressed interest in electric school buses, he noted.

“We are planning to do a broader outreach to districts across the state,” especially to make sure districts on the EPA priority list are aware of the opportunity, said Hallie Neuhaus, policy and government affairs manager for Clean Fuels Ohio.

Toledo Public Schools began working on the application process in June. So far, the district is looking primarily at propane school buses. “However, we continue to research the potential opportunities with electric,” said Deputy Superintendent James Gant.

As of 2018, purchase prices for new propane school buses were only about $10,000 more than for a diesel bus. Purchase prices for new CNG school buses were roughly $25,000 to $30,000 more.

Both of those alternative fossil fuel buses have lower emissions than diesel buses. They also offer savings in operating costs. It’s unclear how much their fuel costs will be subject to current fluctuations in the petroleum and natural gas markets, however.

The price for buying an electric school bus can be between $300,000 and $400,000 — roughly three times as much as a diesel-powered bus, said attorney Brendan Beasley, who heads up the legal department for Highland Electric Fleets in Massachusetts. The company offers electric school buses to districts under a service plan model akin to that for solar energy power purchase plans.

“We provide the buses to the school as a service,” Beasley said. That includes charging infrastructure and coverage for maintenance. In return, districts pay an annual fee, which covers financing for the vehicles, company expenses and a profit for the company. Some districts have expressed interest in working with his company to apply for the EPA rebates, he said.

Once electric school buses are on the road, “they’re going to cost less to operate and maintain,” Jones said. The buses have fewer moving parts and lower maintenance. Fuel costs are much lower and less subject to fluctuation as well. As of late June, the average price for a gallon of diesel fuel was more than $6 in Ohio.

There also are potential grid opportunities from battery storage, Beasley said. School buses generally run only at the start and end of the school day, and many don’t run in the summer, when electricity demand is often especially high.

“So it’s really just on the front end where that help is needed” for electric school buses, Jones said.

“The technology is just better,” said Joe Flarida, executive director for Power a Clean Future Ohio. “It is a technology that is quickly becoming the best available in the market. And we need to make sure that schools and school systems are thinking about it and thinking about how to invest in it.”

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.