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Electric School Buses Get a Boost From New State and Federal Policies

The push to convert the nation’s diesel bus fleet to electric gained momentum in the last week with new state and federal policies aimed at getting more clean-energy vehicles on the road.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on March 29 issued the final version of a new rule that sets higher fuel efficiency standards for manufacturers producing a wide range of heavy-duty vehicles, including school buses, starting in 2027.

The new rule will lead to 40 percent of the vehicles produced in the “medium heavy-duty” category—which includes school buses—being electric by 2032, according to the EPA’s regulatory impact analysis of the rule.

Meanwhile, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, on March 28 signed into law a new grant program for schools to secure state funds to transition to electric buses. Districts with buses manufactured prior to 2007 will get priority consideration.

And in Virginia, a state lawmaker is pushing to revive a grant program for electric school buses that has lain dormant since it was established in 2021.

Roughly 500,000 school buses traverse America’s roads every day. Of those, 4,000 run on electricity, and districts have purchased or committed to another 4,000 electric buses that in the coming years will begin transporting students, according to a data dashboard maintained by the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research group focused on sustainability.

The vast majority of school buses run on diesel fuel, which emits high levels of toxic chemicals, smells unpleasant, and poses health risks to people who ride buses regularly. Six states are requiring school districts to transition to all-electric bus fleets over the next couple of decades. Many states and the federal government are pumping money into school districts that want to purchase electric school buses, which tend to cost more upfront than traditional buses but help districts save money on fuel in the long term.

New rules could accelerate electric bus manufacturing—to an extent

The exact ramifications of the EPA’s new rule may vary from one manufacturer to the next.

The rule doesn’t mandate a transition to electric buses. Rather, it requires manufacturers’ fleets to not exceed a certain threshold for greenhouse gas emissions.

Manufacturers could choose to prioritize electric vehicle production to achieve that goal. Some manufacturers exclusively produce electric vehicles already.

But manufacturers can instead work to improve the fuel efficiency of their diesel vehicles, said Katherine Roboff, deputy director of external affairs for the Electric School Bus Initiative from the World Resources Institute.

“There’s really a menu of options that manufacturers can look at, which makes it a complicated picture,” Roboff said.

Some observers believe the rule won’t sufficiently advance efforts to reduce emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit coalition of researchers focused on climate change, published an article on March 29 pointing out that most states don’t currently have laws in place that require that low-emission models make up an increasingly larger share of newly sold vehicles. In those states, manufacturers won’t necessarily feel compelled to prioritize electric vehicle production, the group argues.

“Even under a best-case scenario, EPA’s rule falls short of the level of zero-emission deployment needed to simultaneously address climate change and the freight pollution overburdening communities around the country,” wrote Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst for the group.

Some manufacturers, meanwhile, are less enthused with the rule for different reasons. The president of the American Trucking Associations said in a statement that the EPA’s goals are “entirely unachievable given the current state of zero-emission technology, the lack of charging infrastructure, and restrictions on the power grid.” Cummins, a company that makes school bus engines, issued a statement saying “there will be challenges across our industry to reach” the EPA’s goals.

Still, the rule will have the effect of reducing the overall number of high-emission vehicles on the road. People living in low-income communities are more likely than high-income communities to be located near depots and ports where high-emission vehicles often travel.

As a result, “any progress that we can make cleaning up these vehicles has a really big impact on equity,” said Meredith Epstein, the manager of federal policy for the WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative.

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