As Biden awards nearly $1 billion for electric school buses, can utilities keep up?

By Johnathan Hettinger

The largest form of mass transit in the US is getting an overhaul – as long as utility companies can keep up.

The Biden administration this week announced nearly $1 billion for 2,700 cleaner school buses across 37 states in an attempt to curb fossil fuel pollution and improve children’s health. The vast majority of the $965 million, which is awarded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), went to electric school buses that are supposed to replace older diesel buses.

“As the wheels of the new, electric school buses go round and round, carbon emissions and pollution are going to keep going down and down,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in an EPA statement.

The funding for the five-year, $5 billion Clean School Bus Program comes through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Law. So far, the program has invested nearly $2 billion to fund around 5,000 electric and low-emission school buses. In this week’s award, 86% of funding went to low-income, tribal or rural communities. But the rollout of electric school buses faces some practical challenges, according to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which released two reports about the program last month.

While the EPA’s top watchdog found that supply chain issues are not likely to arise because companies are ramping up production, the watchdog raised concerns about utility providers’ abilities to upgrade infrastructure.

“The increased demand on manufacturers and utility companies may impact the timeliness of replacing diesel buses and ultimately may delay program health and environmental benefits,” the report said.

The biggest hurdle to the electric fleet is how quickly utility companies can build infrastructure for the buses, the EPA said in another recent report. Bus chargers often lead to a need for new transformers, electrical lines and switch changers, according to the report. In order to be successful, school districts need to plan ahead, the EPA said.

“One utility company we interviewed stated while it had experience with electric vehicles and buses, it did not have experience at the projected scale,” said the report. “One utility company explained that it could take nine months to two years to complete construction.”