UniteGPS – New data released by CALSTART, a national nonprofit consortium specializing in clean transportation solutions, reported 1,738 electric school buses (ESBs) were operating in the United States as of September 2021, whether funded, ordered, delivered, or currently deployed. 

Electric school buses in California
California operates the most ESBs in the United States

More than just outlining the nation’s inventory of ESBs, the report explained growth opportunities for the market, analyzing how certain growth indicators like funding and policy correlate to more ESBs. Based on extensive state legislation providing school districts with incentives to go electric, California currently outperforms the rest of the country with 850 ESBs in use, followed by Maryland with 331.

This information comes at a time when school districts across the country are seeking to replace 480,000 diesel-powered school buses with electric and low-emission vehicles. State governments like West Virginia are following suit by partnering with GreenPower to build an ESB manufacturing plant, while New York intends to implement a zero-emission bus fleet by 2035.

Electric school buses in rural districts 

In retrospect, one thing that CALSTART’s report didn’t highlight was the number of ESBs in rural communities versus cities, not explaining the differences in distribution. That’s to say, ESBs are still non-existent in most rural parts of the country. Take a sparsely-populated district like Pepin Area Schools in Wisconsin, for example, using engine cleaner to reduce run-off.

“We’re still driving diesel-powered buses and they spew up (who knows what),” said Bart Gray, Director of Transportation, told UniteGPS. He coordinates a fleet of seven school and activity buses for around 130 K-12 students. As far as environmental interests go, despite different driving styles, Gray feels as though both rural and urban communities share the common desire to curb pollution plus safeguard clean air.

“In Pepin, now you’re driving in an area where we would love the air to be pristine out here in the country, especially because we’re growing crops,” said Gray, who has been an educator for over 40 years as a coach, athletic director, plus bus driver. 

Although it mentioned California’s 2016 Rural School Bus Pilot Project that received $62 million in funding from a state environmental agency, the report didn’t provide insight on the Clean Bus Program as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal.

Challenges for electric school buses

According to the CALSTART index, one of the most prevalent barriers of entry for ESB adoption is price. For example, the technology is 300 percent more expensive than traditional school buses. There are also considerable overhead labor costs in order to train people to operate the new machinery.

Also applicable to upcoming federal changes to CDL training, there’s little that a school district the size of Pepin can do to onboard cleaner transportation without federal or state support.

“If there are new implementations or requirements for a school district like us, anything we add becomes a real challenge financially just because we’re so small,” said Gray. ”If it’s a situation that (the feds) are requiring a school district to do it without any financial help, that’s just one more level of difficulty.”