Friday last day to apply for state funding for electric school buses

The state is offering $150 million to school districts to replace old diesel school buses with zero-emission school buses. September 29 is the last day for school districts to apply for the grant.

California Air Resources Board, or CARB, and the California Energy Commission are partnering with the state to award school districts with up to $495,000 to replace old diesel buses with electric buses and charging equipment. It’s the second year the state has offered this grant. 

As of 2022, 52% of the 23,800 school buses in the state are using diesel fuel. 

"We need to stop burning fossil fuels as fast as we can, in any way that we can and this is a way to do that, especially if the buses are at the end of their lives anyway," said Kristina Pistone, a research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute.

Pittsburg Unified School District currently has four entirely electric buses with three more coming by the end of the year. They allocated about $500,000 of district money in 2018 to go along with grant funding to pay for them, citing Assembly Bill 579, which requires 100% of new school buses must be zero-emission by 2035.

"The electrics are quieter, they’re cleaner, and you don’t end up with a lot of soot," said Tony Schultz, a bus driver for Pittsburg Unified School District.

Schultz has driven an electric bus for more than three years in his 15-year tenure at PUSD. He said kids are already benefiting from the cleaner air. 

"You can see some of those [diesel] buses and after a couple of days, the window is just caked. You could easily write ‘wash me’ on there, so they’re not going to be breathing that when we pull up to the stops," he said.

Pistone said it is not just healthy for the atmosphere, but also the kids. "It can effect cognitive performance when kids with their small developing lungs, are exposed to traffic related air pollution. It can have significant health impacts," she said.

CARB noted in California, about one in eight children take a school bus between home and school. Even though the time children spend in school bus commutes account for less than 10% of a child's day, the commutes contribute 33% of a child's daily exposure to some air pollutants. 

Milpitas Unified School District has six electric buses after it received a $2 million grant in 2019. The district’s out-of-pocket expense was $206,992. 

Neither Milpitas nor Pittsburg USDs are applying for the grant this year. While they are leaders in the movement, officials said there are limitations.

"The range is not quite there yet," said Schultz. "When it taps out, it’s usually about 86 miles."

Additionally, Schultz said it can take a few hours to fully charge an electric bus.

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Matthew Belasco, Pittsburg USD Director of Maintenance, Operations, and Transportation told KTVU that for longer routes, there aren’t enough chargers. He said PUSD has 31 total buses, but most of them are run off alternative renewable fuel. This is because the district needs buses for longer distances and field trips.

There are than 560 clean school buses currently operating on California roads and another 1,200 on back order.

"There’s just a lot of money floating around out there and there’s a lot of school districts across the United States taking advantage of that and replacing their aging fleet so it can be difficult with the manufacturers to keep up with the demand," said Belasco. "AB579 is a daunting bill. It’s going to be challenging to implement."

There are still questions about the lithium batteries.

"What are they going to do with the batteries [when they die]? I keep hearing that that’s going to be a problem as far as disposing the batteries and building the batteries," said Schultz.

Pistone said the batteries come at a cost. "There are some climate costs of making electric vehicles, how we mine lithium and other metals is not the most sustainable," she said.

However, Pistone said when paired with other climate-conscious activities, it can be well worth it. "Can we re-imagine our systems and use electric buses in conjunction with easier bike routes, safer bike and walking routes, more robust public transportation?"

Pistone explained that eliminating the toxins that come from diesel buses will have an immediate impact, because the life of those pollutants is short.

"These air particles from diesel that end up in the atmosphere have negative impacts on air quality. Those will last for the order of a few days to a week depending on whether it rains, so we’ll see the impacts fairly quickly," she said.

"There’s a lot of reasons why it should be a no-brainer to replace things we already need to replace with an electrified version," said Pistone. 

"We can be an example for other places for how to do it and hopefully show it’s not hard to do it," she said.

To date, the state has invested more than $1.2 billion to replace old, diesel-burning school buses. An additional $1.8 billion is going out over the next five years for zero-emission school buses and associated charging infrastructure. Last year, 81 school districts purchased more than 300 zero-emission buses with the state’s support.

CARB also states that electric school buses support grid reliability, because they charge during the day when there is an abundance of clean energy on the grid.

This is all part of the California Climate Commitment. Governor Newsom is requiring all new vehicles sold be zero-emission by 2035. The more than $52 billion plan includes over $10 billion for zero-emission cars, trucks, buses, and charging infrastructure. The goal is to achieve net-zero carbon pollution by 2045.

This story was reported from Oakland, Calif.