On cold winter mornings in rural Wisconsin, six new electric school buses travel through two small towns and surrounding farmland and forests, picking up more than 300 students. The buses, the first of their kind in the state, started to arrive at the beginning of the school year.
“We were joking that you can’t hear them and you can’t smell them anymore, but you can definitely see them,” says Ryan Krohn, administrator for the Palmyra-Eagle School District. “Because of state laws, they’re still yellow.”
[Photo: Palmyra-Eagle School District]
The district was among the first to get a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program, which plans to give out a total of $5 billion by 2026 to help schools primarily in lower-income districts replace old buses. (The first round of funding awarded more than $875 million for more than 2,300 school buses across the country; the second round of nearly $1 billion followed earlier this month.)
[Photo: Palmyra-Eagle School District]
Palmyra-Eagle’s grant fully covered the cost of six new buses—replacing its entire fleet—and partially covered the cost of installing new charging infrastructure. The switch to electric can help the district save costs, Krohn says, while reducing pollution and helping children avoid the health risks of breathing diesel exhaust, a known carcinogen.
It seems like a simple proposition: Schools get funding to clean up air pollution, cut their carbon footprint, and save money on the cost of fuel and repairs of older vehicles. But some districts that were awarded EPA grants returned them.
Why some districts turned down the grants
In Wisconsin, for example, six other school districts were awarded grants in 2022 but didn’t end up taking the money. When some districts researched the details of switching to electric, they worried about challenges like how to work with utilities to set up charging infrastructure, and whether the new buses could handle specific routes.
“The biggest reason we decided on not moving forward was lack of infrastructure and guarantees on the new technology on their run time,” says Robert Smudde, the administrator for Wisconsin’s Lakeland Union High School District. “We have 884 square miles of district and 19 daily routes, and need certain guarantees to be able to move forward with that level of new tech.”
[Photo: Highland Electric Fleets]
Navistar applied for the grant on behalf of Lakeland and four other Wisconsin districts that later returned funds. Alec Borror, sales director for IC Bus, a subsidiary of Navistar, says that because the technology is new, it “takes a level of commitment from the customer to be successful. If a district perceives that moving to EV will be too complicated, often their process stops.” He says the company has now built a team to help customers through the whole process, including analyzing routes and building charging stations.
Other grant programs have faced similar issues. In San Jose, California, one school district got a $1.6 million grant for new electric buses but then learned that the grant wouldn’t cover the cost of new charging infrastructure. The cost of both the buses and charging stations rose significantly after the grant was approved, and the district ultimately decided not to move forward.
For the EPA’s Clean School Bus program, another challenge has been the application process: In some cases, contractors that provide transportation services for school districts applied on a district’s behalf—without talking to the district first.
A recent report from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General found that in the first round of grants, districts returned more than $38 million in funding “because a contractor applied without their consent or knowledge.” One electric bus advocate told me, on background, that the EPA set up the program quickly because it wanted to get the money out the door—and the agency wanted the application to be simple. But that also meant that some applicants didn’t have to do the due diligence of getting the school district on board. The OIG report recommends that future applications require school districts’ consent; the EPA is currently reviewing the report and says that it doesn’t have further information to share yet.
Not all contractors have pushed hard to convince districts to make the switch. Anniston City Schools, an Alabama school district, was awarded more than $9 million for new electric buses and charging infrastructure. But its transportation contractor, School Transportation Solutions (STS), told the school board at a meeting that the vehicles’ range might not be as long as advertised, and didn’t try to assuage the district’s doubts about being a “guinea pig” with new technology. The district didn’t move forward with the electric buses.
“If you would rather pass on this altogether, it’s no sweat off my back, no offense to me, but it’s not my program,” Dennis Gallagher, an STS representative, said at the time. “We are your contractor, we’ll run electric buses or diesel buses.” (Gallagher tells Fast Company that his company sees clear advantages to electric buses—the avoided pollution, the cost savings in operation, and the fact that the buses are quiet—but also thinks some markets are better suited to EVs than others.)
How ‘electrification as a service’ companies are helping with the transition
Other companies offer detailed programs to help districts with the transition. “There are a ton of downstream services needed to really deal with the technology risk, design all the balance of equipment that’s needed, and operate that equipment in a way that makes the fleet reliable and affordable for schools,” says Duncan McIntyre, CEO and founder at Highland Electric Fleets, which offers school bus electrification as a service. “So we do all those pieces. We design the electrified depot. We actually procure all the equipment. We install it all. And then we provide support in the form of managed charging, training, and on-the-ground support for a period of 10 to 15 years, depending on the contract.”
In most cases, he says, an electric bus can easily cover a school bus route, which averages 55 miles; buses can typically travel 130 or 140 miles on a charge, with less range on the coldest winter days. For unusually long routes, charging stations can be added at key locations so the bus can charge in the middle of the day when it’s not needed.
Adding charging equipment requires working closely with utilities, and can be more challenging in rural areas. “If you’ve got a rural fleet of 25 buses and you’re going to turn half of them into an electrified fleet, you may need to bring a half a megawatt of service in,” McIntyre says. “And in a rural area, the utility company is, in some cases, ill-equipped to handle that kind of new load request. Sometimes that involves designing in some [battery] storage. Sometimes it involves agreeing to scale down your charging during certain times. There’s always a path, but since electrification is new, many of the utilities haven’t encountered this type of request.”
Highland Electric Fleets also works with some school districts on a side benefit of electric buses: Since school buses typically sit idle for most of the day, especially in the summer, they can store extra energy for the grid, sending it back when there’s peak demand. Highland is now working with school districts in multiple states to use their buses to provide backup power for the local utility. Utilities pay for the service, so it also reduces the cost of owning the buses. In some rural areas, where storms can take out the power for hours or a day before crews can arrive to make repairs, the buses can also plug directly into critical community buildings to provide power.
Generate, another company that provides “infrastructure as a service,” recently partnered with school bus manufacturer Blue Bird to help districts make the transition to electric vehicles. The company has been using the same overall approach to help customers install other sustainability-related projects like utility-scale solar power, battery storage, and food waste reduction.
“There are two big friction points we’re trying to address in the energy transition,” says Generate cofounder and CEO Scott Jacobs. “One is customer-adoption frictions, and second is financing frictions. Those are the two things principally holding back the transition we need to make a net-zero world. And so infrastructure as a service is about addressing those two points.” The company was already working with some school districts on energy efficiency upgrades, and recognized that they also needed help with electric bus programs.
While some districts have struggled to switch to electric buses—and at least 10% of original applicants returned their EPA grants—the majority have moved forward. And those who have say that the new technology works. In Wisconsin, Krohn says the electric buses have performed well so far in frigid weather and on rural routes. “Really, for the most part, it hasn’t been anything different from a regular bus,” he says. And while the charging infrastructure took a lot of coordination to set up, the process happened more quickly than the district initially anticipated.
Now Krohn offers advice to other districts that are considering making the switch. He has given tours to other administrators and talked on a state podcast about how the grants work. When electric buses become more widely used, his own district will benefit: Right now, when Palmyra and Eagle sports teams make longer trips for games or track meets, they have to take a diesel bus because there’s nowhere to charge at the other end.