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CHARGED DEBATE: Inside the struggle to electrify school buses in New York

In an ambitious move to combat climate change, New York State is mandating a complete shift to zero-emission school buses by 2035, starting with all new buses being electric by 2027. Bill Harvey, a seasoned transportation advisor at Leonard Bus Sales, discussed the nuanced challenges this transition entails.

Whether it’s cost differences, operational and strategic changes that would be necessary with electric buses, or infrastructure demand — especially in rural communities across Upstate New York — there’s a range of concerns he hears from school officials while talking about electrifying their fleets. He said another issue is the ‘charged nature’ of debate around electric vehicles. “Too often it’s politicized, and there’s some real upside to these vehicles for everyone involved, but there are also some really significant hurdles that are being ignored right now,” Harvey said in a recent appearance on Inside the FLX.

Infrastructure: The Primary Hurdle

“The first and foremost [challenge] is infrastructure,” Harvey explained, underscoring the complexity of introducing electric buses. The transition isn’t just about the buses; it involves an intricate web of electrical upgrades and coordination among various stakeholders, from school districts to municipalities to energy providers. 

Harvey describes it as one of the most-essential “tripping points” for districts. He said the gap in infrastructure for schools to move to electric isn’t discussed enough. 

Harvey describes it as a stark gap in preparedness across school districts. “Most [districts] can handle one or two level two chargers. Beyond that, they’re going to have to add a completely new service,” he explained. 

One local example Harvey cited was the Naples Central School District, which despite having a relatively new bus garage — built in the last decade — can only support three level two chargers without major infrastructure upgrades there.

Financial Strain: The Cost Differential

Highlighting the cost disparity, Harvey explained that an electric bus costs about $400,000. This is significantly more than a diesel bus priced around $145,000. 

This price difference, combined with the additional expense of chargers, poses a substantial financial challenge for many districts, especially those in rural areas. “There’s a lot of extra cost there,” Harvey continued. “Especially when you’re multiplying that out across an entire fleet of a dozen or two dozen vehicles.”

While there are state grants available for electrifying bus fleets — the way districts are reimburse for transportation poses its own challenge. In short, Harvey said the state has expanded reimbursement periods for electric buses through state aid.

“Currently, school districts are repaid through state aid over a five year period of time on each purchase,” he explained. “And if a district receives, say, 80% reimbursement through state aid for transportation over five years — they will get that value paid out over five years. Now, the state has changed the repayment period from five to 12 years, so districts are going to have to take repayment of that vehicle over 12 years, which spreads out those dollars — and put some districts in a position of getting repaid for vehicles no longer in their fleet.”

So, if a district purchased a school bus for $400,000 and they were getting 80% of that reimburse — the repayment would be $320,000 over five years. Now, that repayment will be paid out over 12 years — even if the bus is taken out of rotation after 5-6 years.

Harvey said that charging costs will vary based on when buses are plugged in and getting powered. If buses require to be charged twice in a day — avoiding certain peak times could be unavoidable — driving up the total cost to districts.

Technical Limitations: Performance

Addressing the operational aspects of electric buses, Harvey said that the biggest difference lies in range and charging times. “You’re looking at a full size school bus with a total range of 80 to 100 miles,” he said, a stark contrast to the several hundred miles a diesel bus can cover. 

Furthermore, electric buses face a 20-30% range reduction in cold weather. A bus could get an average of 100-120 miles of range on a full charge when it’s 70 degrees, but that performance would be reduced to 80-100 during the colder winter months. “It also takes the vehicle a bit longer to charge when it’s colder outside because the batteries need to be warmed along the way,” he explained.

This shift isn’t just about swapping out diesel for electric; it’s a complete operational overhaul. “It’s going to be very difficult,” Harvey continued, considering the reduced range and the need for frequent charging. This change would impact daily school operations, potentially requiring more buses and drivers — or at the very least — a redevelopment of bus routes.

Timeline Feasibility: A Race Against Time

With the 2027 and 2035 deadlines looming, Harvey said the biggest concern is feasibility. The timeline is tight, especially considering the delays in infrastructure upgrades and the current backlog in electrical components. “It’s taking about a year, if not 24 months, on the long end — to get the things needed to upgrade the grid“ he added, underscoring the urgency.

All told, Harvey said there needs to be a balanced approach to implementing electric buses. While acknowledging the environmental benefits and potential of electric buses, he advocates for a more measured, realistic approach. “It’s a very political issue, not necessarily something that’s based on current limitations,” he said of state mandates. He suggests that a market-driven transition might be more effective and less disruptive over the next decade.

However, if the state is going to mandate these transitions, they will likely need to put forward significantly more funding to meet the demands. And energy providers like NYSEG and RG&E in the Finger Lakes region will be forced to follow suit. “Change has been fast; and these buses are great — I think that’s one thing that gets lost here,” Harvey continued. “If we’re just talking about electric buses — the driving and riding experience is great. They’re high quality vehicles, but the infrastructure and timeline are major concerns as we have these conversations with districts and stakeholders across Upstate.”