Electric school buses may be coming to NH

Aug. 7—With millions of federal dollars flowing to states to support a transition to electric vehicles, clean-energy advocates here are hoping New Hampshire doesn't miss the bus.

The school bus, to be precise.

Until now, the cost of buying electric school buses has been prohibitive for most communities. An electric bus can cost between $350,000 and $400,000, about four times the price tag for a diesel bus.

But the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed late last year included $5 billion in funding for school districts to replace older diesel school buses with new, clean or zero-emission buses. Experts say that could provide just the incentive some New Hampshire communities need to take electric buses for a test drive.

Political support for electric vehicles has been mixed in New Hampshire.

Earlier this year, a bill that would have allowed the state Department of Transportation to accept federal funds to acquire electric school buses as part of a pilot program (SB 447) passed the Senate on a voice vote, after a unanimous recommendation by that body's Transportation Committee. But the House tabled the bill.

The rising price of gasoline has injected momentum into the push for electric vehicles, which might spill over to interest in electric school buses.

In the first round of funding for the EPA's Clean School Bus Rebate Program, "The focus is high-need, low-income areas and rural areas," said Jessica Wilcox, transportation program specialist with the state Department of Environmental Services.

In New Hampshire, 117 school districts qualify to be on the "priority" list, Wilcox said.

The rebate is generous: up to $375,000 for an electric bus plus an additional $20,000 for charging infrastructure, with no match required. There are lower rebates for propane and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.

That basically provides a school district with a free electric bus, Wilcox said. "EPA is really looking to fund a project in every state, so my hope is that this funding will be the impetus for us to get school buses on the ground in New Hampshire," she said.

Electric buses coming

Chris Skoglund, director of energy transition at Clean Energy NH, a nonprofit advocacy group, says electric school buses are coming.

"With each unit that's built, it brings down the cost of the next unit," he said. "In the initial years, you're really paying for the cost of building a new supply chain, paying for the cost of training a new workforce throughout that supply chain. And just getting that first bus built and delivered makes it seem like the technology is prohibitively expensive."

But it's been the same with any new technology: Mobile phones "used to come in suitcases," he said.

"So this is where a pilot would help make a proof of concept and pay for some of the infrastructure, for some of the first costs that are associated with these buses," Skoglund said. "And therefore reduce some of the economic barriers to getting these vehicles to where they need to."

DES's Wilcox, who is also coordinator of the Granite State Clean Cities Coalition, said some school districts in New Hampshire already have begun transitioning to alternative fuels, such as CNG and propane. "That's a great way to break away from the comfort zone of diesel, is to embrace a different alternative fuel," she said.

She encouraged New Hampshire school districts to apply for the EPA funding even if they are not on the "priority" list. The application period closes Aug. 19 (epa.gov/cleanschoolbus).

"There's a lot of things we're still trying to navigate through, but we are on the precipice, through this historic funding, to have the opportunity to really clean up carbon emissions from school buses in New Hampshire," Wilcox said.

That won't happen in time for this school year, Wilcox said, but the first electric bus could be rolling by the 2023-24 school year. The Clean School Bus program continues through fiscal year 2026, so additional rebates will be available down the road, she said.

Additional EPA funding for electric school buses is available through New Hampshire's Clean Diesel Grant Program, aimed at reducing emissions from diesel engines. The state also plans to use matching funds from a 2017 settlement with Volkswagen, paid out to states after the automaker was caught cheating on federal emissions tests with its diesel vehicles.

The Clean Diesel grants reimburse a portion of the cost of upgrading or replacing diesel vehicles, engines and equipment with alternative fuels, including electric, propane and CNG. Proposals for the first round of funding are due on Sept. 9, and grant winners will be notified around Oct. 1 (des.nh.gov/business-and-community/loans-and-grants/dera).

Nashua could be first in class

School districts in the Nashua area may be among the first to try out electric school buses.

About 18 months ago, the Nashua Regional Planning Commission brought together an ad hoc group interested in pursuing electrification of the school bus fleet in area communities.

"Our goal is to do so in the most sustainable way possible," said Jay Minkarah, the commission's executive director.

Transitioning to electric school buses understandably has not been a priority for school districts that have been pushed to the limit during the pandemic, Minkarah said. The more pressing problem has been the lack of school bus drivers, he said.

But now, with federal funding available, it's a good time to think more seriously about a pilot program, he said.

"When contracts are up for renewal, it's an opportunity for a willing school district to try to negotiate that some percentage of the buses in their fleet are electric or to try to negotiate for a conversion plan," he said.

In Manchester, electric school buses are "not in our immediate future," said Mike Whitten, executive director of Manchester Transit Authority.

The MTA went in a different direction.

"We just started three years ago replacing all of the diesel buses with propane," Whitten said. "So we put in the fueling infrastructure to be able to do that here. It would be really difficult to switch tracks and now go all electric."

MTA used VW settlement funds to buy the propane-fueled buses, Whitten said. "We wouldn't have been able to do it without the VW money," he said.

"We're too small to be able to guinea pig some of this," he said.

Kids can breathe easier

Proponents of electric vehicles say there are vital public health reasons to replace diesel school buses with cleaner vehicles.

Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, who sponsored the electric vehicle bill that failed to pass this year, noted New Hampshire has high rates of childhood asthma.

"That's one of the real health reasons to get kids out of these diesel buses," he said.

Even newer, low-emission diesel buses emit particle pollutants, Clean Energy's Skoglund said. With school bus windows lowered to reduce the risk of COVID exposure, he said, young lungs are now exposed to even more tailpipe emissions.

"So there are long-term public health benefits to making the switch," Skoglund said.

Skeptics wonder whether electric school buses, while well suited for California, would work as well during a New Hampshire winter when, as current electric vehicles owners can attest, frigid temperatures can sharply decrease EV range.

But a pilot program in neighboring Vermont proved that electric buses can be viable and even affordable options, if government subsidies help with the upfront cost.

Barry Russell, transportation supervisor for Champlain Valley School District in Shelburne, Vt., south of Burlington, said his district was able to purchase two electric buses for the 2021-22 school year, at a cost of $112,000 per bus. The state of Vermont used VW settlement funds to cover the rest of the $356,000 cost, Russell said.

"I love the buses," Russell said. "The ones we have ride amazingly well. They're stable on the road, it's a nice ride, it's very quiet."

His district chose buses with composite bodies, manufactured by Lion Company of Canada. They went with a separate, diesel system for the heat, which solved the cold-weather problem without affecting the range, Russell said, and they worked with their power company to set up a separate charging station to recharge the buses after the morning runs.

Russell said one of the two electric buses was out of service about 25% to 30% of the time. "The weird thing about that bus, it was never the electrical (system)," Russell said. "It just had some weird glitchy stuff."

The other electric bus, he said, "just ran perfect for the year."

The new buses have been a big hit, Russell said. "The kids love them," he said. "If I take it off to a different route that doesn't normally have it, the kids go crazy. And the parents like seeing them."

"We would get more if I ... didn't have to pay $350,000, $400,000 for it," Russell said.

Proponents: Be first in line

Isn't there an argument that New Hampshire should hang back and wait for bigger, richer states to prove the concept and shoulder the initial higher costs?

"That may be the case, but at the same time ... we've got forward-thinking communities that recognize that there are benefits and they want to be the leading communities," Clean Energy's Skoglund said. "Because yes, the cost may be more expensive, but they provide a direct environmental benefit to the children that are riding on those buses."

Meanwhile, the technology is coming to allow electric utility companies to partner with EV owners, who can charge their vehicles overnight when the demand is lowest and return power to the electric grid when demand spikes.

That could work with electric school buses, too, Skoglund said.

It's called vehicle-to-grid, and it could prove especially helpful during the summer months when school buses aren't needed to transport kids, but demand for electricity peaks.

"It's not the Holy Grail, but it's where there's a lot of interest," Skoglund said.

The MTA's Whitten said he expects any move toward electrification of buses in Manchester will happen first on the municipal side, but the city is not scheduled to buy a new full-size bus until 2029.

"That gives them seven years to get the range and the technology to where it needs to be," he said.

It makes sense to proceed deliberately as the state and nation transition to electric vehicles, Skoglund said.

"Being conservative will give people the experience and expertise they will need, and also allow the market to mature so they can deliver the next vehicle that has a better range," he said. "It is called market transformation for a reason."

Optimistically, Nashua planner Minkarah said, the first electric school buses could be operating in the Nashua region within three years.

As more funding becomes available and technology improves, he said, "I do think we're going to see more of a push."

In his experience, big changes begin incrementally and then suddenly move quickly.

"I think we're in one of those moments," he said.