Electrify School Buses


The State is making an inventory of public fleets in Washington, with goal of having a plan for how they can all be converted to electric. School buses should go to the front of that list, because of the air pollution they emit, and the fact that kids are exposed to that because they are riding the buses. Air quality in school buses is four times worse than that in passenger vehicles, and eight times as bad as air quality on the street. A report from the NRDC notes: "Given the poor air quality, [it is] estimated that 23 to 46 of every one million children may eventually develop cancer from the diesel exhaust they inhale just while traveling to and from school."

The State estimates that there are 10,000 school buses in Washington. The State recently purchased 40 electric school buses, using funds from the VW diesel settlement, but obviously this is just a small part of what is required.

School districts purchase their own school buses (or contract with a school bus company). The State pays for them by reimbursing school districts on a depreciation schedule based on the cost of a diesel bus. The average diesel school bus costs about $165K, but the cost of an electric bus is around $400K. The gap between the two is not covered by the State, and school districts cannot shoulder the extra cost. The gap is not quite as large as the difference, because operating an electric bus is much cheaper than a diesel bus due to reduced cost of fuel and maintenance. In fact, over the lifetime of a bus, the two might be very close in cost. However, this initial capital cost is insumountable for districts. The State needs to increase the amount it reimburses so that local districts can afford to replace worn out diesel buses with electric.

Credit: Joedamadman

Clearly, in order to do that, the State is going to need additional revenue. Where could this come from? There are many possibilities, but two of them are Clean Fuels, and a Carbon Fee.

California has a program for electrifying school buses that allows grants from its Clean Fuels program to go to purchase electric school buses. The Clean Fuels program stipulates that sellers of fossil fuels must reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels, or pay the state a fee, as part of a cap & trade system, to cover the cost of the pollution. Since many vendors don't want to change the fuel they sell, they purchase carbon allowances from the state instead. This gives the state funds for decarbonization, some of which go to electrifying school buses.

A carbon fee or tax would be similar, and funds from it could either be directly applied to decarbonization projects, like electrifying school buses, or the income stream could bonded, which would give the state all the money up front. Many of the State's capital transportation projects are done this way.

Alternatively, the state could choose to assess more property tax, which is how much of the schools expenses are met.

In the Media

  • The Long Road to Safer School Buses. NRDC Study of air quality inside California school buses: "Levels of diesel exhaust inside the school buses were up to four times higher than those found in passenger cars just ahead of them, and more than eight times what you'd find in the average sample of California air. Scariest of all: The authors estimated that 23 to 46 of every one million children may eventually develop cancer from the diesel exhaust they inhale just while traveling to and from school."

  • Clean School Bus Act of 2019. Proposed federal legislation.