Sustainable America Blog

Are School Buses Ready to Go Electric?

school buses

Photo: Zemlinki! via Flickr

We often blog about how businesses with vehicle fleets can be more fuel-efficient. But what about our nation’s largest fleet: school buses. Tasked with carrying 25 million children to school every day, our collective school bus fleet is the largest form of mass transit in the United States. Making the 480,000 buses in operation more fuel-efficient would go a long way to reducing oil usage in our country.

Considering that children are more susceptible to the serious health conditions that diesel exhaust emissions can lead to — asthma, allergies, heart disease, lung disease — moving away from diesel to cleaner-burning fuels can also improve the health of our kids. A new study even suggests that curbing bus emissions can have a positive effect on absenteeism. Tighter emission standards are helping with this, but when older buses are ready to be replaced, it’s possible for school districts to move away from gasoline and diesel entirely to some of the cleaner options on the market.

All-Electric, Ready to Roll
Of the alternative-fuel school bus options available, the best choice for low emissions is electric, but that market is just getting started. The first electric school buses started transporting kids in California’s Kings Canyon Unified School District last year in vehicles made by Trans Tech Bus with a powertrain from Motiv Power Systems. Lion, a Canadian maker of school buses, is set to deliver eLion, an all-electric school bus, this fall. These electric buses can drive 75 to 100 miles on a full charge, which is enough to cover most bus routes in the U.S.

Jeremy Kranowitz, our executive director, had the opportunity to ride in an eLion electric school bus recently. Here’s what he said about it:

The bus was so quiet that it had to create a low noise outside when it was traveling less than 30 mph so it wouldn’t surprise kids. There are no diesel emissions. The bus has batteries along the bottom, which creates a low center of gravity and good handling.


After incentives and fuel savings, the Trans Tech buses are expected to save the Kings Canyon School District up to $10,000 a year. Lion says their buses can save $13,000 in fuel costs a year, plus another $3,000 in maintenance costs, which can make up for the extra upfront cost of purchasing the buses within six years. Lion expects to sell more than 100 eLions over the next year in California and Canada.

Other Alt-Fuel Buses
Another alternative fuel that’s gaining ground in school bus yards is propane. According to an article in The New York Times, 19 of the top 25 school bus markets have vehicles fueled by propane, which is produced as a by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining. It costs less and is somewhat cleaner burning than gasoline or diesel. Maintenance costs are less, too. And, like electric buses, propane-powered buses are much quieter than diesel vehicles.

Compressed natural gas (CNG) is another fuel that school districts are tuning to. It generally has lower emissions than diesel, is domestically produced and has a lower and less volatile price than diesel. It can also be produced from renewable sources, although that type of fuel isn’t readily available yet.

Long-Term Savings
Buying new alt-fuel buses or retrofitting older vehicles can be more costly up front than buying traditional buses, but when factors like lower fuel costs, long-term fuel contracts, lower maintenance costs, government incentives and grants are taken into account, most of these options will end up saving a school district money in the long run. And don’t forget the priceless benefits of doing less harm to young lungs and building a more secure energy future for those children.

What You Can Do
We hope to continue to see fuel change come to school districts around the country. If you want to help, find out what your local school district’s transportation plan is, and express your interest in reducing fossil fuel use to the administration. If your school isn’t ready to invest in a new fleet of cleaner buses, there are still things that can be done to improve the efficiency and emissions of older buses, like putting an idling reduction program in place. (We can help with that; contact Katrina Kazda at info@sustainableamerica.org.) And don’t forget to set a good example — when you’re at school waiting for your kids after soccer practice, turn off your own engine.

Amy Leibrock
Blog Editor

RELATED ARTICLES
New Ways to Reduce Idling in Your Community
How Much Can You Save With an Electric Vehicle?
Alt Fuels: One More Reason to Love Our National Parks

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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