As most school districts are just beginning the first small-scale electric deployments, a phased rollout of federal funding following the FTA’s approach might make more sense in the end. - Photo:...

As most school districts are just beginning the first small-scale electric deployments, a phased rollout of federal funding following the FTA’s approach might make more sense in the end.

Photo: Blue Bird

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released eagerly awaited information on the new Clean School Bus Program. While the program itself is an exciting development in federal support for the nascent zero-emission school bus market, the chosen program funding mechanism leaves much to be desired. The EPA decided to disburse the funding via a rebate mechanism, leaving many of us at the Center for Transportation and the Environment concerned about the ability of under-resourced school districts to access the funding and about the ability of all school bus operators to receive proper technical support for deploying a complex and unfamiliar new technology. As we have found through our experience with the zero-emission transit industry, simply providing capital for vehicle acquisition is not enough for successful zero-emission vehicle deployments.

Our initial concern with the EPA’s approach is access to the funding. Rebate mechanisms for funding place the burden of preparing the application and providing upfront capital on the applicant. In the case of school districts, available resources to prepare applications may be scarce and the ability to provide the upfront costs for zero-emission models that are currently more expensive than fossil fuel options may be out of reach for many operators, likely leaving some school districts behind. Without adequate guidelines to ensure equitable access to the funding, under-resourced jurisdictions may not have the same capability to apply to the program and, as a result, may be unable to provide cleaner transportation for students.

Additionally, rebates do not support funding for technical assistance, which is critical to successful deployments. EPA states that two of its program goals are to maximize the number of buses funded and to promote cost parity for electric buses. These goals will not be achieved if school bus operators are not given adequate technical assistance and become frustrated with or abandon the technology. For a vast majority of school districts in the U.S., the Clean School Bus Program will provide the first opportunity to purchase electric school buses. The deployment of battery electric vehicles and the development of charging infrastructure is complicated and requires far more attention, planning, coordination, and education than the other technology types that are eligible in this program.

These considerations must be addressed to successfully deploy electric school buses. Failed deployments could hinder adoption of this critical vehicle technology. Even partial project failures will result in slower adoption. Electric school buses offer the only propulsion technologies that eliminate both greenhouse gas emissions and criteria pollutants that have a proven negative impact to children’s health. It is critical for the EPA to set schools up for success when deploying electric school buses and to not inadvertently drive districts to the selection of more harmful technologies. Fortunately, the success of the zero-emission transit bus market provides a model framework for developing the zero-emission school bus market and supporting successful deployments.

To set up this framework for success, the EPA should look to the example provided by the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) approach to building the zero-emission transit market. FTA took a phased approach to building and supporting this market, supporting commercialization of zero-emission buses from prototype development and demonstration to small-scale deployments to full fleet transitions now that the market is reaching maturity. Small deployments prompted bus OEMs to scale up production of vehicles while allowing transit agencies to learn about the technologies through manageable deployment projects. Most importantly, these deployments were supported with funding for technical assistance. Transit agencies were encouraged to contract with industry experts to provide cost analysis, route modeling, infrastructure planning, and other technical assistance services.

In the transit market, FTA is now expanding federal support for agencies moving beyond the demonstration phase and into full fleet electrification. In a telling move, FTA now requires basic transition planning as a prerequisite for receiving funds through its Low or No Emissions Vehicle Program. Transit agencies must show that they have considered issues like infrastructure build-out, operational changes, and technology appropriateness before FTA provides capital support to purchase electric transit buses. Both transit agencies and FTA can move forward confidently into full fleet transitions with the lessons learned via the previous small-scale deployments and with the knowledge that most of the risks of transition have been mitigated.

CTE is advocating for the EPA to implement this proven model to effectively finance and support the transition to electric school bus fleets. The electric school bus market is beyond the prototype phase, but nearly all school districts are only beginning their first, small-scale deployments, and technical assistance will be even more critical for under-resourced school districts than it was for transit agencies. The Clean School Bus Program is an opportunity to transition our student transportation vehicles to zero emissions that cannot be missed, and future funding years for the program should reflect the lessons learned through FTA’s transition to zero-emission buses.

This article was edited according to SBF editorial standards. Opinions expressed may not necessarily reflect that of SBF.

Christiane Walker is an engineering consultant at Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) and has worked in the energy industry since 2012, working in the oil and gas sector directing drilling operations on offshore oil rigs in the United States, Africa, and the Middle East before making the transition to clean energy in 2020.