File photo courtesy The Lion Electric Co.

File photo courtesy The Lion Electric Co.

As we have recently seen here at School Bus Fleet and elsewhere, the number of stories about electric school buses has increased dramatically over the past few months.

One reason is simply the evolution of the industry. Student transportation has consistently — and many times, organically — embraced new technologies as part of its overall DNA. This fact was on display as the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for Wi-Fi hotspots that were in some cases filled by the yellow bus.

In addition, various other technologies have been implemented as we continue to prioritize the safety of the students who ride our buses. In some cases, yellow buses are now manufactured with electronic stability control and automatic braking systems as standard equipment. In others, we have seen technological features that assist with student management and provide opportunities for studying on the bus. We are also creating technological “student safety zones” outside the bus.

The point is that student transportation invites innovation, and I’m confident that an evolution to a fully integrated zero-emission fleet would have occurred organically at some point, based on the industry’s track record.

John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association. - Photo courtesy National School Transportation Association

John Benish Jr. is the president of the National School Transportation Association.

Photo courtesy National School Transportation Association

But unless you have not been paying attention, the stakes are raised in this endeavor by the new Biden Administration and his ambitious Clean Energy Plan. If you have not yet read it, I suggest that you do, so you’ll be prepared to participate in the process of trying to create this new reality.

For the record, on their campaign website, the Biden-Harris team stated that they would “set a goal that all new American-built buses be zero-emissions by 2030, which will create significant demand for the manufacturing of new, clean American-built buses utilizing American-manufactured inputs — and accelerate the progress by converting all 500,000 school buses in our country — including diesel — to zero emissions. Biden will ensure that the existing — and future — workforce is trained and able to operate and maintain this 21st century infrastructure.”

You read that correctly. The thrust of the plan calls for the entire U.S. school bus fleet to be largely turned over to zero emission electric buses by 2030. To put that in perspective, we have less than nine years to work out details of this ambitious plan, including necessary infrastructure improvements and how the program in its entirety will be financed.

Traditional Americana dictates that this country is fond of raising the ante, calling the shot, and creating the new big challenge. And just like safety is embedded in the DNA of student transportation, change is driven in this country by aspiration.

On the other side of the equation are factors that must be accounted for one way or another. This ambitious goal will have a considerable cost to it, and we need to ensure that as policymakers develop incentives for this incredible transformation that private school bus contractors are eligible to fully participate. Keep in mind, the typical electric vehicle’s price tag is about three-and-a-half times that of the average school bus right now, so will the pressure of increased production in fact raise that cost?

Policymakers also need to keep their eyes on adequate infrastructure funding for items like chargers and charging stations, as they must be factored into the overall cost estimates. Add to the package costs associated with retiring the infrastructure of the existing power sources (diesel, gasoline, propane, natural gas), otherwise the environmental impact of the transformation gets eroded considerably.

One final thought is that the changeover to a zero-emission fleet will not be complete until the program is fully tied to renewable energy sources. If we do not invest in solar, wind, or hydroelectric power, electricity produced by coal or oil powered plants is simply a trade-off and won’t reduce our carbon footprint, which is the objective.

Student transportation is ready, willing, and able to roll up our sleeves and meet the challenge ahead, but we must do so in a carefully coordinated and calculated way — 26 million students require nothing less.