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What is the EPA's Clean School Bus Program? It Presents Opportunity for State Climate Leadership

Evergreen Explains: The role states can play in supporting equitable implementation of the Clean School Bus program, and several key actions for governors to consider.

Courtesy U.S. EPA. Administrator Michael Regan and Vice President Kamala Harris on May 20, 2022, when the administration "announced $500 million... to begin replacing the nation’s fleet of school buses with clean, American-made, zero-emission buses."

Right now, school districts across the country have a huge opportunity to protect the children they serve and fight climate change in their own communities. The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program, created and funded by President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), will grant $5 billion to school districts to replace old, polluting school buses with zero-emission and lower emission models. The first deadline to apply for funding is coming up next month, in August 2022, and this memo shows how states and governors can ensure their schools can make the most of this opportunity.

Electric school buses provide an opportunity to both reduce greenhouse gas pollution in the communities they serve, as well as to protect children from exposure to harmful air pollutants like diesel particulates and nitrogen oxides. Scientific evidence clearly shows how these types of air pollution harm both children’s brain development and their overall health. Deployment of electric school buses is growing, with over 12,000 buses committed to date. EPA’s new funding stream can be a powerful catalyst for further accelerating this transition. For the first round of this five-year program, the EPA is making available $500 million in rebate funds. Additional opportunities will be offered over the course of the five-year program, and a second round of funding is slated to be made available to the nation’s school districts later this calendar year. 

Like so much of the IIJA, the ultimate climate impact of this program will depend heavily on local implementation. However, unlike much of the clean transportation funding in the law, which often passes through state governments and metropolitan planning organizations, the Clean School Bus program will award funds directly to school districts, in most cases. In order to maximize the potential for this key program, state departments of education, energy, environmental and transportation agencies, and governors’ offices, should take action to ensure that school districts have the policy and technical support needed to take full advantage of this unprecedented funding and transform the way our children get to school every day. 

Governors should mobilize state agencies to work with school districts, ensuring that schools have the technical support they need. Environmental justice communities should be a top priority. While propane and natural gas buses are eligible for a portion of the overall program funding, states should also work with districts to ensure that the vast majority of applications that EPA receives are for electric buses, and states should examine their own programs and policies to take full advantage of this unique opportunity. 

This memo details the role states can play in supporting equitable implementation of the Clean School Bus program, and several key actions for governors to consider. 

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Image courtesy World Resources Insitute, "The State of Electric School Bus Adoption in the US" (used with permission) 

Why It Matters

There are almost 500,000 school buses in the United States, and the vast majority of them run on diesel—a major source of harmful pollution like particular matter and nitrogen oxides. In addition to contributing to transportation greenhouse gas pollution, the public health impacts of exposure to diesel pollution are well-documented and most severely impact low-income communities and communities of color. Reducing students’ exposure to particulate pollution should be a goal for school districts, as studies increasingly demonstrate harm to brain development from fine particulate matter. As Democrats took back the White House and Congress, advancing school bus electrification became a common thread of the many climate and infrastructure plans proposed. The main barrier to increased adoption continues to be the significant upfront price disparity between diesel and electric buses. These proposals were all aimed at subsidizing the upfront costs to allow for scaled deployment at the district level. 

School bus electrification has the potential to serve as a down payment on cleaning up the entire medium- and heavy-duty vehicle sector. Moreover, as parents see their children transported safely on quieter, cleaner buses, electric school buses have the potential to build additional public support for electric vehicles more broadly. 

This program is also covered by President Biden’s Justice40 initiative, with the intent of reducing the disproportionate vehicle pollution that communities of color suffer from. By prioritizing zero-emission buses in communities of color and focusing on the school districts with the greatest need, this program can help improve air quality and reduce health impacts in historically marginalized communities. 

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What to Watch

The $5 billion Clean School Bus Program was established as part of the IIJA following President Biden’s original proposal in his American Jobs Plan to spend $20 billion on school bus electrification. While both zero-emission buses and alternative fuel buses (propane and natural gas) are eligible for $2.5 billion of the total funding available, the EPA is prioritizing zero-emission vehicles. We strongly encourage states and school districts to focus their applications on electric buses in order to maximize pollution reductions and to maximize the level of funding they will receive.

EPA’s implementation comes as momentum for school bus electrification continues to build locally. Mayors are making commitments to fully electrify their fleets, and states have already awarded significant funding to support the transition, primarily via the settlement that emerged from the Volkswagen emissions scandal. 

The EPA has also established a list of “priority” districts for this first round of rebate funding. Priority districts have a greater chance of receiving funding and will also receive larger awards. 

As the EPA makes awards for the first round of this program, it will be important for states to track the efficacy of this prioritization system as well as how many applications the EPA receives for both zero-emission buses and alternative fuels. 

Application and Technical Support: Particularly for Environmental Justice Communities 

It’s imperative, though, to ensure that high-need districts are able to take advantage of the opportunity to secure funding that will cover the vast majority of the upfront cost of an electric bus. The generosity of the federal rebates means that the EPA’s priority districts may end up saving significant amounts of money when repair and fuel costs are accounted for, particularly when school districts are being hammered by high fuel prices.    

Governors should instruct and provide resources to their state departments of education, and energy, environment and transportation agencies, to jointly provide technical support and grant-writing assistance to districts throughout the duration of the Clean School Bus Program, focusing on applications for electric buses.  

Some states are already stepping up on this front. For example, in her 2022 State of the State address, Governor Kathy Hochul committed the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the New York Power Authority and the State Department of Education to working with school districts on applications. The Oregon Department of Energy also recently released a high-level implementation guidebook for school districts. Finally, state officials in Pennsylvania are considering deploying state funds to assist districts with grant writing. All technical support should prioritize the deployment of electric buses in environmental justice communities. Many school districts require some modest support to secure this funding and education regarding the feasibility of electrification for their fleets. The technology has evolved rapidly, to the point where electric buses can meet the vast majority of school district transportation requirements regardless of region or season. 

"There are almost 500,000 school buses in the United States, and the vast majority of them run on diesel... In addition to contributing to transportation greenhouse gas pollution, the public health impacts of exposure to diesel pollution are well-documented and most severely impact low-income communities and communities of color."

Infrastructure Needs

EPA Clean School Bus Program funding will largely be allocated towards the costs of actual school buses, along with a set allotment for charging infrastructure per bus. However, as deployment of electric buses accelerates, broader power upgrades will likely be required at many schools to support increased electricity demand. Governors and state agencies should work with Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) to prioritize upgrade site assessment and upgrade requests from school districts. 

States may want to consider allocating funding towards expenses not covered by the federal program.  

States are also currently finalizing their plans to invest their National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure funds (NEVI) under IIJA. States should consider how their plans could support school buses specifically. As a nationwide charging network takes shape, states should ensure that school districts will be able to charge their buses outside of their home lots/depots, such as when on longer-distance field trips. 

States Stepping Up with Policy Goals and Supplemental Funding

Governors should also consider setting statewide school bus electrification goals. Such goals can inject urgency throughout state agencies to remove barriers to school bus electrification, and can send a signal to districts and industry alike about the future of pupil transportation in their states. 

Over the last year, a number of governors and gubernatorial candidates have advanced statewide school bus electrification commitments. In her Healthy Climate Plan, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set a target for all new school bus purchases to be electric by 2030. New York, which has more school buses on the road than any other state, recently enacted legislation requiring all purchases to be zero-emission by 2027. In Massachusetts, gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey’s climate plan sets an ambitious target of 2030 for statewide deployment of electric school buses.  

Additionally, where possible, states should consider deploying additional funding to support districts through this pivotal transition. The goal of public funding should not be to subsidize the conversion of every school bus nationwide, but to spur a cycle of mass adoption where demand increases, mass production/assembly ramps up to reduce the cost of electric buses. Although electric buses are currently more expensive than conventional buses, parity on total lifetime/ownership cost is expected within the decade. Public funding should also be prioritized and more generous for environmental justice communities. 

Many states moved forward with significant state appropriations for school buses this year, including California, Colorado, New Jersey and New York. Connecticut is specifically considering a matching program that could help fund infrastructure upgrades not covered by the EPA. This is a novel approach that other states may want to examine. 

At the very least, states should examine any of their existing funding streams that support school bus electrification and move to eliminate any subsidies for “alternative” fuels that still emit greenhouse gas pollution, like propane and natural gas.

Where legislative appropriations are not feasible, states can consider a variety of other support mechanisms, including via utilities and PUCs. In Illinois, for example, the utility ComEd recently submitted a beneficial electrification plan to the Illinois Commerce Commission. This plan fulfills a requirement of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act and proposes significant investments in electric school buses. Moreover, additional federal funding may be available via certain buckets of transportation formula funds. 

Remove Local Deployment Barriers and Sharing Real-World Data

States should examine all local laws and regulations for opportunities to eliminate barriers and speed adoption. Some states are exploring central procurement assistance. More broadly, state education aid formulas and contract/lease terms for buses should be examined for potential modifications that might be needed in the coming months and years.

Furthermore, states can work with school districts to centrally aggregate and share lessons, challenges and successes from deployment. Real-world data on battery range, maintenance needs, driver satisfaction and cold-weather operation will be critical to disseminate as the industry and vehicle technology continues to advance. 

Additional Resources for School Districts and Policymakers

The Electric School Bus Initiative at World Resources Institute, in collaboration with partners and communities, aims to build unstoppable momentum toward an equitable transition of the U.S. school bus fleet to electric by 2030, bringing health, climate and economic benefits to children and families across the country and normalizing electric mobility for an entire generation. 

The Alliance for Electric School Buses is a diverse partnership of nonprofit organizations committed to an equitable electrification of the nation’s school bus fleet. Since 2017, the AESB has worked with local community members and stakeholders to help school districts transition from dirty diesel to zero-emission, electric school buses (ESBs), prioritizing communities most harmed by air pollution. 

The Takeaway

The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program represents a unique opportunity to transform student transportation in the United States and accelerate the broader transition of our transportation system.

While school districts must apply individually and will be the direct recipients of federal funds, the Clean School Bus Program also presents an important opportunity for state leadership. Governors can mobilize the resources of state government to ensure their state’s districts take full advantage of this opportunity, and they can enact supportive policies in their own states to accelerate the equitable transition to a cleaner commute for our school children.

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