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The $200 billion electric school bus shock

By Duggan Flanakin

The Beatles once sang, “All you need is love.” But will Kamala Harris’ professed love for electric school buses – plus the $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies she announced last October – be enough to usher in the new paradise?

Hmm. Let’s do the math.  The $1 billion in rebates pledged is to help purchase 2,500 electric school buses in some 391 school districts around the nation.  But there are in fact about 500,000 school buses transporting children to and from school, to and from ball games and other events, nearly every school day. 

By simple calculation, this suggests it will take a $200 billion investment just to replace existing school buses – which must be done, Kamala tells us, by the 2030 deadline or else CHILDREN WILL DIE.

Do factories, batteries, and other raw materials exist to build (or retrofit) 500,000 school buses – and every other vehicle in America today – by 2030? By 2050? Does that much money exist? Does that much electricity exist?

To be sure, the demand (from mostly leftist school boards) is out there. Nearly 2,000 school districts applied for the free money last year, pushing the demand SO HIGH “that the EPA had to double the amount of funding” from the initial pledge of $500 million.” Should Kamala keep her job in 2024, the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program is committed to handing out another $4 billion over the next five years.

Nearly 2,000 school districts applied for the first round of rebates from all 50 states, including Washington, D.C., U.S. territories, and federally recognized tribes. The demand was so high "that the EPA had to double the amount of funding" from its initial pledge of $500 million, a White House official tells Parents on background.

A total of 391 rebates were awarded, and the Vice President anticipates thousands more applications as the EPA's Clean School Bus Program awards a total of $5 billion over the next five years. That’s 12,500 down, just 487,500 to go!

School districts NOT getting the federal free money are faced with a much different scenario. Even the smaller electric school buses today cost about $250,000 compared with just $50,000 to 465,000 for a diesel-powered bus of the same size. The larger battery-electric buses can run from $320,000 to $440,000 versus just $100,000 for a diesel bus.

Take the Dallas (TX) Independent School District, which has about 860 buses. To replace the entire fleet with large diesel buses would cost, therefore, about $86 million.  But those 860 buses, if battery-electric, would cost a minimum of $275 million. And that does not include the cost of charging stations and retraining mechanics. That’s over three times as many taxpayer dollars the school district would have to extract from voters.

All this, of course, has been under the assumption that electric school buses are just as reliable as diesel-powered buses – and that they can keep children warm in winter and cool on hot days as well as buses with diesel engines.

The Ann Arbor (MI) Public Schools Board of Education learned recently from its environmental sustainability director, that the electric school buses they bought have “a lot of downtime and performance issues” and “aren’t fully on the road.” Moreover, the infrastructure upgrades needed to use these buses, which were estimated at just $50,000, “ended up being more like $200,000.”

To the surprise of many educators, electric school buses may break down and require towing. As with any electric vehicle, this poses risks not common to gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. One is that they are heavier – and thus require larger tow trucks (remember, tow trucks only tow the cabs of 18-wheelers, not the trailers). Towing capacity should be about half the weight of the towing vehicle, and the typical electric school bus weighs 36,000 pounds.

Another thing the electric bussers ignore is the wear and tear on bus tires, which cost about $3,000 per set (likely higher by now, with inflation). Goodyear notes that electric school bus operators have to consider the extra weight of the buses, which makes balancing the tires for load capacity and durability even more important – and more frequently done. The extra weight also means that the tires do not last as long as on lighter weight diesel buses.

Electric bus enthusiasts like Kamala Harris will tell you that spending an extra $150 billion or so is worth the price to theoretically save children from diesel exhaust (despite the major improvements in diesel technology and much cleaner diesel fuel mandated in recent years). But they are silent about the number of actual lives lost by children mining the raw materials for electric vehicle batteries.

Using data supplied by Pacific Gas & Electric, Colorado journalist Cory Gaines noted that the $260,000 cost differential between diesel and electric school buses means that any school district wanting to take advantage of the predicted much lower operating costs will need major help with the huge upfront capital costs. Which means both federal and state subsidies – and higher taxes to pay for the subsidies.

Noting that electric buses have longer downtimes and higher towing costs, plus require (again upfront) costs for installing and maintaining charging stations – and other hidden costs, the payback on the electric school bus (at an average of 16,000 miles per year, a high-end estimate) comes out to about 20 years – longer than the lifespan of the bus. And that’s if nobody dies or is injured by a school bus fire.

Gaines, who runs the Colorado Accountability Project on Facebook, gives an additional caveat for buses operating in cold climates (like the Colorado mountains, the Great Lakes region, and Alaska, where today there is but one electric school bus).

Unlike diesel buses that scavenge waste engine heat for passengers, electric buses have to divert battery energy into heat. On very cold days, the amount of energy needed to keep children warm could exceed the amount used to travel the route. That may not matter on short trips to and from school -- but imagine a basketball or hockey team on a bus trip to a game across the state.

Charging the battery for an electric school bus takes up to eight hours using AC power, but with a diminished range in cold weather taking children on long bus trips for any purpose might require an extra day on the road in each direction. That means an extra day each way of feeding and housing the children (and keeping watch over them).

Or school districts could just say, Sorry, kids, no more school travel. We can’t afford it!

Duggan Flanakin is a senior policy analyst at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow who writes on a wide variety of public policy issues.


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