Virginia districts roll on with electric school buses despite lack of state funding

Virginia districts roll on with electric school buses despite lack of state funding

A lack of state money isn’t curbing Virginia school districts’ enthusiasm for ridding their fleets of polluting, noisy diesel-powered buses. 

Through December, Virginia ranked fourth nationwide in the number of electric school buses either on the road or on order. Its 260 total was surpassed by only California, Maryland, and New York, according to data compiled by the nonprofit World Resources Institute.

All three of those states have either robust incentives, mandates, or both for districts to make the switch to electric school buses. In Virginia, though, state funding has not been available since a one-time, $24 million allocation five years ago from the state’s Volkswagen emissions cheating settlement. Meanwhile, state lawmakers blocked Dominion Energy from expanding an electric school bus pilot program that it had also started in 2019.

Instead, school districts have bumped up their e-bus counts by plugging into federal dollars, forming public-private ventures and buying buses directly.

“There are so many ways to make this transition work and that’s great,” said Bobby Monacella, a Mothers Out Front campaigner in Fairfax County who helped to usher in the e-bus evolution in her Northern Virginia backyard in 2019. “I’m so happy it’s happening to what amounts to the largest mass transit program in the country.”

And the momentum is continuing.

Virginia’s electric school bus total will soon exceed 300 following Monday’s announcement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarding Fairfax County Public Schools $16.5 million to purchase 42 buses. Lynchburg City Schools received similar funding in 2022 under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and is bringing 25 electric buses on board. Lynchburg and Fairfax County are two of 14 Virginia school districts that have thus far successfully tapped into that money. 

In the Washington, D.C. suburb of Manassas City, school transportation officials are the first in Virginia to begin leasing buses from Highland Electric Fleets, a Massachusetts-based company with an innovative model to help school districts more smoothly transition to electric transportation.

And in Fairfax County, local pressure applied by Monacella and Mothers Out Front to reduce its carbon footprint is prompting the local district to buy an additional three electric buses on its own dime — the first school district in Virginia to do so. By spring, its 1,625-bus fleet will include 31 electric models. Eventually, that count will jump to 73 when the district spends its newly awarded $16.5 million.

Tish Tablan leads the Electrify Our Schools program at Charlottesville-based Generation 180. The nonprofit has been instrumental in guiding a movement among Virginia schools toward adopting rooftop solar as a cleaner, more affordable power source. More recently, Tablan folded electric buses into that mission.

Navigating the latter is challenging, she said. But by buckling down on her homework, she has become a go-to resource for schools clamoring for guidance on accessing electric buses.

“I wish there was an easy button that schools could press to navigate this complicated process,” Tablan said. “We’re trying to help them because there’s a lot to figure out.”

Cost is part of that formula. Electric school buses are roughly three times as expensive as traditional diesel ones.

The price tag on a 77-passenger electric bus in Virginia is $368,500, compared to $120,099 for a diesel model, according to Whitney Kopanko, the electric vehicle program manager at Sonny Merryman, the Prince William-based bus dealer that controls 60% of the overall school bus market in Virginia. 

Two other major barriers to the transition are lack of familiarity with electric bus technology and insufficient staffing.

“Strapped school districts in Virginia just don’t have the bandwidth to do all of this,” Tablan said. “Applying for grants is difficult enough. Districts are shorthanded already. Too few bus drivers means they have to pull people off their regular jobs.” 

Staying ahead of curve in Lynchburg 

Lynchburg City Schools will replace close to half of its 62-strong diesel bus fleet in one fell swoop this winter when 25 shiny new electric buses begin plying the roads.

Hope Watts, the district’s director of transportation, doesn’t want to stop there. She’s hoping Lynchburg can receive money for 37 more before the EPA’s five-year, $5 billion grant program runs out of money in 2026.

“It’s possible that the state or the federal government could have a mandate for electric buses,” said Watts, where roughly 6,000 of the 8,000 students ride buses. “I want to be ahead of the curve.”

Lynchburg was awarded $9.8 million for 25 buses and chargers — $375,000 per vehicle and $20,000 per charger — from the EPA in its first round of grant funding. Watts found out earlier this week that her district didn’t qualify for a second-round request for four additional buses.

Generally, the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program prioritizes school districts with the highest shares of low-income and underserved households. Historically, they disproportionately bear the health burdens of tailpipe pollution, including ozone and minute pieces of particulate matter that can become lodged in residents’ lungs.

She admitted to experiencing a case of sticker shock when Lynchburg had to pay upward of $1 million for bus upgrades and the installation of the accompanying charging infrastructure.

That’s why Watts is relieved that Tablan and her colleagues introduced her to a Generation 180-initiated online exchange for school officials immersed in electrification.

Through SLICE — School Leadership in Clean Energy — Watts learned that Lynchburg is eligible to apply for federal IRA tax credits to take the financial sting out of the $775,000 cost for outfitting buses with premium tires, a second stop sign, GPS, cameras, air conditioning, wheelchair lifts and other necessities.

The same goes for the $297,000 Lynchburg spent on charging-affiliated conduit and trench-digging. The local investor-owned utility, Appalachian Power, installed necessary overhead lines at no cost, she said.

“I wouldn’t have a clue that this possibility existed without the SLICE network,” Watts said. “It’s fantastic to be able to compare notes because we’re all in this together.”

To ease her drivers into the idea of electrification and allow for training, Watts arranged for early delivery of one demonstration bus from Sonny Merryman last September. It officially joined the diesel fleet in December.

“Once they drive it that first time they love it and are always begging for it,” Watts said about the sleek bus. “And why wouldn’t they? This bus is comfortable, quiet as a mouse, and the heat and air conditioning work like a dream.”

Her company’s mantra, coined by executive chairman Floyd Merryman, is “electrification is the most exciting thing to happen to the school bus since yellow paint.”

Manassas City lauds public-private partnership

In Manassas City, Andy Hawkins was seeking a solution to the greenhouse gases his district’s 65 buses emit while transporting 7,700 students throughout a community measuring 10 square miles in the heart of Prince William County.

At first, he was skeptical when a colleague alerted him to a deal that schools in nearby Montgomery County, Md., signed with Highland in 2021. 

But the executive director of finance and operations became an enthusiast by the time he opted to sign a 15-year contract with Highland in 2022. Hawkins’ district pays only an annual lease fee of $30,000 per bus. In turn, the private company invests in the upfront costs of buying the buses and charging infrastructure, electrifying the bus depot and training drivers and mechanics. It also offers a charge-readiness guarantee.

Manassas City’s first three buses arrived in August 2023. Another three will be delivered this year and six more in 2025. After those first dozen, Hawkins anticipates a full fleet turnover within 15 years.

“It doesn’t really cost me anything,” he said, pointing out that maintaining and fueling a diesel bus costs at least $25,000 annually. “I’m the finance guy, so this deal had to make sense financially. And it did. Highland has done what it promised to do.”

Highland, active in 30 states, combines private capital with public funding. Its model mimics the power purchase agreements (PPAs) that have helped schools draw on solar energy without the burden of steep upfront costs of solar arrays.

As the largest buyer of electric school buses nationwide, Highland can eliminate overhead costs for districts and recoup that investment over time via decreasing bus prices, cheaper fuel and maintenance savings, said Matt Stanberry, Highland’s vice president of market development.

“Stack up those benefits and we can get better economics that we can pass along,” he said. “We’re trying to provide districts with at least price parity for operating their fleets, or better yet, savings.”

Highland is eligible to apply for tax credits available through the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), as well an array of grants from utilities and federal, state and local sources, Stanberry said. 

Pollution-wise, Hawkins is elated that switching out those first three buses is the equivalent of removing 300 cars from the road for a year.

“It’s a healthier environment for students,” he said, adding that once-skeptical bus drivers “now complain that we don’t have enough electric buses.”

Fairfax’s outright purchase is unique 

A 2019 local mandate requiring all school buses be electric by 2035 spurred transportation leaders in sprawling Fairfax County to buy three electric buses that are scheduled to be integrated into routes this spring.

“We are fully committed to converting the fleet, but it has to be a staggered approach,” said Paul D’Andrade, the district’s assistant director of transportation services. “We’re fortunate enough to have the budget and my understanding is we’re the first district to buy electric buses outright.”

In addition to its 42 just-funded buses, the county had already acquired 28 electric buses from separate programs administered by the state Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion Energy. Each program provided money to cover the difference in price between an electric and diesel bus.

In 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam allotted more than $24 million of Virginia’s $93.6 million share of the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust toward clean school buses. A subsequent DEQ-operated program helped schools statewide buy 96 buses.

Also in 2019, Dominion Energy started a pilot vehicle-to-grid program with schools in its service territory that traded 50 diesel models for electric ones. Fairfax received Dominion funding for eight buses.

That program played out when legislators — in 2020 and 2021 — rejected Dominion’s attempts to advance beyond phase one and add at least 1,000 more buses. Program costs were to be recoverable through the utility’s base rates. Opponents criticized most of Dominion’s measures to expand as monopoly overreach that would have raised customers’ bills and handcuffed public schools to the utility’s profit incentives.

“We’re looking at all avenues for funding,” D’Andrade said about Fairfax’s incremental approach. “We figure in five or six years, when we ramp up, prices will start to drop and the technology will be better.”

Advocates still pursue state e-bus funding

Climate change and students’ health and safety were driving forces for Monacella and other members of the joint environmental task force spurring Fairfax County to set a bus replacement deadline.

During that campaign, Monacella’s older daughter was in high school and her younger one was in junior high.

“Winning that was huge,” she said. “It was great to see everyone rally around it.”

Now, close to five years later, she’s eager to score another victory at the General Assembly level. That entails finding a source of money to help Virginia schools statewide offset the cost of electric buses.

In 2021, Mothers Out Front was instrumental in jumpstarting a bipartisan, ambitious and first-of-its-kind piece of legislation, House Bill 2118, that created a specific grant funding model for bus electrification over a 10-year span. However, a financing mechanism never materialized.

The bill that became law was sponsored by then-Del. Mark Keam, a Fairfax County Democrat who resigned in 2022. His original legislation was stripped of its original funding source, a tax on dyed diesel fuel, used in farm machinery and other non-highway vehicles. The substitute version directed the DEQ to hash out details for the grant fund via a workgroup.

While Monacella has had conversations with Keam’s successor, Del. Holly Seibold, also a Fairfax County Democrat, about seeking a sustainable source of dollars, she said “nothing is imminent” yet.

Virginia’s 302 electric school buses don’t even amount to 2% of the 16,000 school buses in service statewide. So Monacella has no intent of giving up. 

“Electric buses are absolutely worth putting money into,” she said. “They’re such a big bang for your buck on reducing emissions and taking care of kids’ health.”

Virginia districts roll on with electric school buses despite lack of state funding is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

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