Cost concerns temper buzz about electric school buses to combat greenhouse gases

Electric buses can cost almost double of fossil-fueled buses. In Bedford, the 90-seat display model cost nearly $400,000. A charging station cost another $100,000.

David McKay Wilson
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
  • Hochul set 2035 as the year to have all of the state's 50,000 school buses electrified

The green dream for school-bus transportation arrived silently and without a trace of noxious diesel fumes one balmy morning in early March at Fox Lane High School in Bedford.

The 90-seat electric bus, manufactured in West Virginia by GreenPower Motor Company, has a range of up to 150 miles on its lithium-iron phosphate battery, with enough charge to complete most bus routes in suburban Westchester County.  

The bus was on display, in part, at the urging of Fox Lane students, who have pushed the Bedford school board to replace its aging fossil-fuel fleet with electric buses. The vehicles are powered by the growing supply of electricity generated by renewable sources such as solar and wind.

Students board the BEAST (Battery Electric Automative Student Transportation) from GreenPower Motors Company during an informational event at Fox Lane High School in Bedford March 7, 2022.

The event was held to showcase the electric transportation alternative to school board members and education officials from across the Hudson Valley.

With the recently announced state policy to end state aid for fossil-fuel buses by 2027 and concerns over greenhouse gases, support for electric buses is growing in the region. Grassroots groups like Croton 100, which has created an online tool that any district across the country can use to estimate the total costs of electric bus ownership, are mobilizing to push school districts to take advantage of lower costs for maintenance and fuel, and the environmental benefits of emission-free buses.

The high cost of purchasing these vehicles remains a key obstacle.

Croton-Harmon voters approved the purchase of three electric buses in 2021, but just one is expected to arrive by September 2022 due to New York’s strict criteria to qualify for state subsidies. Katonah-Lewisboro district wants to purchase an electric bus, at a cost of close to $400,000, with voters there expected to vote on transferring surplus funds for that purchase as well as a $100,000 for a charging station that's included in the school budget that's up for a vote on May 17.

School officials and electric bus supporters took notice in January at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s State of the State message, when she announced the state would not provide financial aid for the purchase of fossil-fuel buses by 2027.

Tracker: Estimate how much electric bus replacement would cost in your district 

For hire: Hudson Valley school district seek bus drivers in labor shortage

Solar: Con Edison pitches plan for 1,000 megawatts of solar power 

She also set a goal to have all of the state’s 50,000 school buses electrified by 2035. That’s 10% of all school buses in the U.S. An estimated 1% of US school buses are electric currently, said Alec Petrillo, of the National School Transportation Association. 

Making those purchases affordable, meanwhile, remains a challenge. The federal Investment and Jobs Act will make $5 billion available over the next five years for electric and low-emission buses while New York may include $1 billion for electric buses in Gov. Hochul's proposed environmental bond act, according to the state Senate's budget proposal now under negotiation.  

State Senator Pete Harckham boards the BEAST (Battery Electric Automative Student Transportation) from GreenPower Motor Company during an informational event at Fox Lane High School in Bedford March 7, 2022.

State Sen. Pete Harckham, D-Lewisboro, who organized the Bedford event, said electric school buses would eliminate unhealthy school-bus emissions that affect students with respiratory illness. They would also contribute to the transition away from fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases. 

Studies have shown that students are exposed to heightened levels of diesel exhaust, which can affect children with respiratory illnesses. Westchester County, meanwhile, has air so polluted that it’s considered a “non-attainment” area under the U.S. Clean Air Act.

“It’s about climate change and children’s health,” said Harckham. “That’s why we need to do it. But it’s an expensive proposition, so we need to help school districts and public bus fleets make that transition.”

Among those in attendance were Fox Lane students as well as members of the grassroots group, Mothers Out Front, which has mounted local campaigns for electric school buses in Tarrytown and Chappaqua.  

Senator Shelley Mayer speaks at an electric bus informational event at Fox Lane High School in Bedford March 7, 2022. Senator Pete Harckham and GreenPower Motors Company introduced the BEAST (Battery Electric Automative Student Transportation) to the school, state leaders and advocacy groups.

Funding obstacles remain

They’ve also experienced the limitations with current funding streams that subsidize the high price-tags for the electric buses.

Electric buses can cost more than twice as much as fossil-fuel buses, with the 90-seat bus on display in  Bedford carrying a price-tag of $386,975 . Electric minibuses can cost as much as $275,000, almost 4 times the cost of a fossil-fuel vehicle, said Croton-Harmon Assistant Superintendent Denise Harrington Cohen.

With an electric comes a charging station, which can cost as much as $100,000 to purchase and install. 

Making the transition to electric will take time. Many Hudson Valley school districts, like Bedford Central, don’t own their bus fleets and have long-term contracts with private bus companies. Bedford Superintendent Joel Adelberg said the district is in the second year of a five-year contract with Towne Bus Corp., which had representatives at the event.

“I imagine we would make electric buses one of the requirements when we put out a request for proposals for a new contract,” he said.

The event also drew attention to triumphs and setbacks on the electric bus front experienced in Westchester’s Croton-Harmon district. Voters in 2021 approved the purchase of a 66-seat electric buses and two electric minibuses.

It came in a four-part proposal in which purchase of the electric Croton-Harmon bus fleet was contingent upon passage for the borrowing plan for two fossil-fuel buses and the availability of specific subsidy amounts from New York state. 

All four propositions passed, helped by Croton 100's analysis, which found that the total cost of the electric bus over its 10- to 12-year lifespan would be less than owning, maintaining, and fueling a diesel bus.

The analysis was done by Chandu Viseswariah, of Croton 100, the former IBM research scientist and renewable energy entrepreneur, who developed the group's Carbon Tracker. The break-even point for the 35-passenger minibus was estimated at 6 years, with $38,000 in savings over 12 years while the 66-passenger bus would break even at 8 years, he said. 

"You run the numbers out on the lifetime of a bus, and you will come out ahead with an electric bus because maintenance and fuel costs are less," Viseswariah said.

Passage of the Croton propositions wasn't enough to purchase three electric vehicles. 

To qualify for state funding, school districts need to retire equivalent vehicles, which were powered by diesel fuel, and purchased before 2010. One Croton-Harmon minibus the district planned to retire used regular gasoline, so it didn’t qualify.

Then the second minibus wasn’t heavy enough to qualify for a $90,000 subsidy level that voters approved last year. The district was awarded $60,000 for its lighter bus, but that didn't meet the threshold approved by voters.  

Patty Buchanan, a member of Croton 100 and Mothers Out Front, has called on the Croton school board to resubmit the proposition, with the appropriate subsidy amount.

“We were disappointed that the district misjudged the state requirement on last year’s ballot,” said Buchanan. “We are hopeful they will put it up for a vote again.”

But Croton school officials in mid-March said they’d yet to have a discussion over the district’s transportation needs for the coming year.

“It’s something that’s still being looked at,” said Croton-Harmon school board President Sarah Carrier. "We still need to hear from the administration." 

Follow Tax Watch columnist David McKay Wilson on Facebook or Twitter @davidmckaywils1. He has written about Hudson Valley public affairs since 1986. Check out his latest columns at lohud.com