Virginia advocates seek path forward for electric school buses despite lack of state funds


An ambitious measure to convert Virginia’s fleet of 17,000 diesel-powered school buses to quieter and cleaner electric models over a decade was praised by health and environmental advocates when it passed the General Assembly at the end of February.

But transitioning from yellow to green is expensive. And that hefty price tag became more daunting when House Bill 2118, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, was left unfunded.

Still, proponents of a bill that drew bipartisan support are optimistic that they can figure out how to tap into state, federal or even private dollars to ensure that fleet turnover is executed in a speedy and equitable fashion.

The bill that became law was stripped of its original funding source, a tax on dyed diesel fuel, which is used in farm machinery and other non-highway vehicles. The substitute version creates a grant fund and directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to lead a workgroup to figure out the details.

While that’s being hashed out, supporters point to other options. For example, $10 million in grants are now available from the DEQ via the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust. Observers are also abuzz with the potential of a private-public partnership that their Maryland neighbor to the north, Montgomery County Public Schools, signed in February with Massachusetts-based Highland Electric Transportation. 

Federal money also could be on the table, depending on how Congress shapes the Biden administration’s new $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, into legislation.

Many Virginians find any of those options far more palatable than a continued, but thus far unsuccessful, legislative effort by Dominion Energy to fold electric school buses into the utility’s expansive vehicle-to-grid plans.

Blair St. Ledger-Olson leads transportation-related policy initiatives at Generation 180, founded in 2016 as a nationwide organization to equip individuals and communities to play a role in the country’s transition to 100% clean energy.

The Charlottesville-based nonprofit was disappointed that legislators, then Northam, declined to fund HB 2118.

“Helping kids breathe cleaner air should be a no-brainer,” she said. “The General Assembly just doesn’t have the appetite to spend money on transportation electrification.”

HB 2118 was the handiwork of Del. Mark Keam, a Fairfax County Democrat who had sponsored similar legislation that failed during the 2020 session.

In a nutshell, this year’s version calls for setting up a grant fund to help school districts cover expenses for electric buses and related charging infrastructure. It is designed to prioritize grant requests from districts in regions with high asthma rates and poor air quality. Diesel fumes contain particulate matter that causes asthma. 

A child riding on a diesel school bus may be exposed to as much as four times the level of pollution from exhaust as someone riding in a car, according to a study released in 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council. That exposure puts them at a higher risk of developing cancer.

The advocacy organization Mothers Out Front has maintained that swapping combustion engines for electric ones is essential to combating climate change because nationwide the transportation sector is the largest emitter of heat-trapping gases. In Virginia, tailpipe pollution accounts for roughly 48% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Fairfax County resident Bobby Monacella, who co-leads her county’s Mothers Out Front chapter, began delving into the issue a few years ago and garnering Keam’s support. 

As this year’s legislative session went down to the wire, she and her two daughters, ages 18 and 14, sat glued to a livestream. They were also plugged into a group chat with other advocates so nobody missed anything.

“When it passed, we completely wigged out,” she recalled. “But like it is with any project, you take the time to be excited, then realize how much work you have ahead.”

The labor to set up a grant fund involves regular gatherings of people with all levels of expertise about electric school buses.

“This is a whole new learning curve,” Monacella said. “We need to define the program and make sure all stakeholders have input.”  

Volkswagen funds now up for grabs

When Virginia was allotted $93.6 million from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, it designated $20 million of that to clean school buses. Through June 25, the state DEQ is accepting applications from school districts for the first round of $10 million. A total of $9.25 million is available for battery electric buses and associated chargers, while the remainder is set aside for propane buses.

The money covers the price difference between diesel and cleaner buses — up to $265,000 per electric bus or up to $20,000 per propane bus, said Angela Conroy, senior planner with DEQ’s Air and Renewable Energy Division.

While each school district can apply to cover that differential for up to 10 buses, the state agency is giving preference to districts that have old buses with high mileage and that enroll large numbers of students in free and reduced meal programs.

Balancing such criteria allows DEQ to address equity issues while also removing the dirtiest buses from fleets, Conroy said. She noted that Virginia has no law outlining when a school bus should be retired. Buses built in and before 2006 are the biggest polluters because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency didn’t institute standards until model year 2007.

“Each bus is scored and ranked individually,” she said. “It’s highly unlikely a district will receive funding for 10 buses even if it applies for 10. Our objective is to get old buses off the road and give everybody a fair shot.”

DEQ officials will notify school districts in July whether or not they’ve been selected. A new funding round of $10 million will likely be rolled out this fall.

Conroy knows $20 million is a drop in the bucket, but “it has to start somewhere.” The VW settlement money is one of several funding options with the potential to generate momentum to move the electric bus market.

“This is the right time and the right place to move people forward, to have that conversation,” she said. “That’s what we’re looking at doing.”

Fairfax County moves ahead — cautiously

Since late May, students in Fairfax County Public Schools have been riding eight electric buses that are part of a pilot program Dominion announced in August 2019.

Vehicle maintenance coordinator Joseph Welborn said he gave drivers plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the new technology after the buses arrived between January and March. 

“Our fingers are crossed that we will be successful with these buses,” Welborn said. “Then we can slowly transition to an electric fleet.”

Dominion’s starter plan invited schools within its service territory to apply for a share of 50 electric buses. Initially, the utility selected 16 localities based on the value of batteries to the local grid. The idea was to grow the program so the bus batteries can serve as energy storage to support the integration of distributed renewable energy.

However, this year and last, lawmakers repeatedly rejected Dominion’s attempts to move beyond phase one and add at least another 1,000 electric buses in its service area. Program costs would have been recoverable through the utility’s base rates. Opponents criticized most of the bills as monopoly overreach that would have raised customers’ bills and handcuffed public schools to the utility’s profit incentives.

Phase one was narrowed to 15 localities because of shifting budget priorities at some school districts caused by impacts of COVID-19, Dominion spokeswoman Samantha Moore said. Despite that, the utility expected to have the 50 electric school buses deployed by the end of May.

“We are continuing to explore ways to expand this innovative program,” she said when asked how Dominion could add enough buses to create a viable vehicle-to-grid operation.  

Dominion selected Thomas Built Buses as the vendor for the electric buses, which cost at least three times as much as a diesel model. Under the pilot, school districts pay the cost of a diesel bus — roughly $109,000 — and Dominion covers the difference. 

In Fairfax County, charging infrastructure was installed at the Stonecroft Transportation Facility near Westfield High School because it met Dominion’s grid-access requirements. Routes of the buses are in adjacent neighborhoods.

The price of each electric bus in Fairfax, with mandated upgrades, rang in at $376,000. The schools paid $130,000 of that total, with Dominion also covering the charging equipment. The utility owns the bus batteries and propulsion systems. 

Typically, the district replaces about 100 buses annually in its fleet of 1,625, Welborn said. He urges climate activists to exercise patience in their push for electric buses because school authorities have to consider the budget, rapid advances in technology and how to install charging infrastructure for buses parked at 130 lots throughout the sprawling district.

“I know this is all about the environment and clean air for students, but we’re trying to be real here,” he said. “I can’t say we’re going to jump in with both feet and only buy electric buses. We can’t do that on our own with our budget.”

Those concerns have prompted him to apply to the DEQ program and explore other opportunities.

Is Maryland county a model for Virginia?

A local model on everyone’s radar is the deal the nearby Montgomery County School Board in Maryland sealed with Highland Electric Transportation, founded in 2018 by renewable energy industry veteran Duncan McIntyre.

The district will pay an annual fee to lease the buses from the vendor. In turn, Highland will invest in the upfront costs of buying the buses and recoup that investment over time via decreasing bus prices, cheaper fuel and savings on maintenance.

Montgomery County plans to replace its current fleet of 1,400-plus buses over the next 14 years. The county expects to cover the cost of the contract with funds that would have paid for purchasing and operating diesel buses, according to a news release.

Touted as the largest single-district project of its type nationwide, it mimics the power purchase agreements that have helped schools obtain access to solar energy without being burdened by the steep upfront costs of arrays.

St. Ledger-Olson, of Generation 180, said such an arrangement is intriguing but wonders how it would work in Virginia because every state has different laws.

“In theory, it’s fantastic,” she said. “In practice, we have to figure it out.”

Virginia is open and prepared to accept federal dollars for school bus conversions, St. Ledger Olson said, but the devil is always in the details of what Congress might actually approve.

When President Biden unveiled the American Jobs Plan, it included $20 billion to electrify one-fifth of the nation’s 480,000 school buses — the country’s largest mass transit system. About 17,000 of those are in Virginia. However, that $20 billion isn’t set in stone because at least three federal bills outlining transportation electrification are also part of the mix.

No matter what Virginia’s funding stream is, Monacella, the Fairfax County advocate, is confident the state can create a fair program that meets each school district’s needs.

“Some people whine about the fact that this is expensive,” she said. “Electric buses matter to us moms who worked on it because we’re talking about our kids and their health. It just seems like we have to make this happen.”

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