Electric school bus transition in Pennsylvania fraught with complications

Federal money is starting to flow for electric school buses, but the funds won’t cover all the costs of switching from diesel.

Updated: May 4, 2023 - 11:00pm

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Electrifying Pennsylvania’s bus fleet – although logical in theory – proves less sensible, experts said Tuesday.

“Our industry already has been hit with a major threat … that threat is the electric school bus,” said Daniel Frye, owner of the Frye Transportation Group in Beaver County, during a hearing with the House Republican Policy Committee. “The price tag is four times more expensive than the current diesel school bus.”

Frye said small operators can’t afford electric buses — as well as rising prices for their diesel counterparts. In June 2022, he bought a diesel bus for $103,000, but by April 2023, a quote for “the same bus” came back at $143,000.

“There is a storm brewing and that is the immense increase in the operational cost due to the electric school bus,” Frye said.

Federal money is starting to flow for electric school buses, but the funds won’t cover all the costs of switching from diesel. In October, the Biden administration announced $1 billion would support the purchase of 2,300 electric school buses nationally. Another $4 billion would be distributed through 2026 for electric and low-emission buses powered with alternative fuels, such as propane or natural gas.

The lion’s share of that funding, though, may end up electric anyway. In 2022, the $1 billion for buses was meant to be split 50/50 between electric and low-emission buses, but was later revised to go 95% for electric “after an overwhelming number of requests from school districts for the electric option,” E&E News reported.

School districts who received those funds also got $20,000 for charging stations, but E&E News noted that the funds “might not go far enough to provide all the plugs and wires a bus depot needs.”

The federal grants might also increase costs for non-electric buses.

“The federal grant program: You take the $400,000 electric bus, and the grant is gonna fill the difference between that and the price of a new diesel (bus), which is why the price of new diesel is increasing rapidly,” Frye said.

Despite the cost issue, experts weren’t totally opposed to electric buses. Switching too quickly, however, comes with its own pitfalls.

“Let’s slow down, pump the brakes, and see how this will pan out, especially for school transportation that is funded by taxpayers,” said Aaron Sepkowski, president of Pocono Transportation and vice president of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association.

Todd Rittenhouse, owner of Rittenhouse Bus Lines, said he’s weighed the pros and cons of electrifying his fleet and was left with too many questions – especially in rural areas.

“We’ve looked at electric buses … the biggest thing to say is they don’t fit all applications,” he said.

He referenced Uniontown, a rural school district, being 52 miles long with an average route for a school bus being more than 100 miles long.

“Does an electric school bus with a possible range, on a good day, of 130 miles make it? Maybe not,” he said. “Those are the things you have to consider.”

“On top of that, for electric buses, the other issue we don’t understand yet because we don’t have enough data is the environmental conditions drastically affect the capacity of the batteries,” he added.

For city bus fleets, electrification has not always lived up to its promises, either.

Though electric buses can have lower maintenance and fuel costs, and lower emissions, they have their own mechanical issues. Cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Madison, Wisconsin have had significant performance issues with their electric buses, as The Center Square previously reported.