Electric school buses: districts shift gears to go green

Published: Sep. 6, 2023 at 4:08 PM EDT
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TOWN OF PHILADELPHIA, New York (WWNY) - School districts are set to go through one of their biggest changes yet: going electric.

A state mandate requires all new school bus purchases in New York state to be electric by 2027. By 2035, 100 percent of the bus fleet must be electric.

We spoke with two north country school districts about the shift. One has already dabbled in electric. The other is navigating the change as a much larger district with more than 100 buses.

“How many buses? What does maintenance look like? How do we perform transition? Do we have enough power in the current grid to power and charge buses at any time of day?”

Troy Decker, the superintendent of the Indian River Central School District, working to answer many questions about the switch to electric buses.

The district will have to buy more than the 100 they have right now because the electric buses might not be able to handle the more than 300 square miles the district covers.

“We normally do two runs in the morning. The range and capacity will only allow them to do one. We’ll have to have another bus on standby to be picked up and use that the second portion of a run,” said Decker.

According to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, a diesel bus typically costs anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000.

A similarly sized electric bus is in the $300,000 to $400,000 range.

At Indian River, it would cost $30 million, conservatively, to go electric.

The district, like others across the state, will have to look at its options for state and federal funding.

“Cost of electric buses, roughly two-and-a-half to three times more than standard buses. So that’s something realistic we’ll have to grasp with, and what that means for our community, what that means for our aid and aid ratios,” said Decker.

When the Alexandria Central School District gets its first electric bus in about November, it will be one of the first in the north country.

“We are probably a test subject a little bit in the north country. We’re the first to be able to do this,” said Chris Clapper, district superintendent. “So yeah, all eyes are on us right now.”

In 2022, the district applied for a U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency grant, offering rebates to replace existing buses with ones with zero emissions.

It was one of nearly 400 schools nationwide to be approved.

“That would have been enough to get us 12 buses to replace our entire fleet. That’s the structure of the EPA grant. We weren’t in a position to do that so we decided to go ahead with four buses,” said Clapper.

This is at no cost to the district.

When those electric buses roll in, the district’s transportation director, Delmar Lambert, will already know what to expect. The district tested a bus last year.

“We actually brought a demo bus up here, we ran it for about two weeks in the extreme cold. We lost about 12 miles of range,” he said.

Getting the new electric buses won’t be the only cost. Districts have to plug them in, and that infrastructure doesn’t exist right now.

On Thursday on 7 News This Evening, we’ll take a look at that investment.