CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, ALLISON BROPHY CHAMPION
Zero-pollution, electric school buses are increasingly becoming the ride of the future for American students. That’s especially so now that the federal government has committed billions to help localities nationwide with the initial, substantial investment to convert their diesel bus fleets.
It’s what communities want, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, said during a press conference Tuesday in Yowell Meadow Park with Culpeper Town Councilman Travis Brown.
“I am really proud of the fact that Virginia is leading the way in the adoption of electric school buses and have been able to do that because federal partners continue to recognize that local governments, industry, school boards, administrators want options,” she said.
Spanberger was in town to tout the environmental and health benefits of electric buses—and the funding for which included in 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which she supported in Congress. The legislation provides $5 billion over five years for local investments in battery-powered school buses and chargers through the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program.
Joining Spanberger for the hourlong gathering in the town park were representatives from the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, BlueGreen Alliance and Moms Clean Air Force.
Also present was a crew from Sonny Merryman, a North Carolina-based bus company with several offices in Virginia. The firm brought one of its American-made electric buses for a quick demonstration and ride up Sperryville Pike with the congresswoman on board.
The bus then traveled to the Culpeper County Public Schools administration office for a demo with local leaders.
The school division is adding two electric buses to its fleet this year, replacing two 2004 diesel buses that travel a combined 36,000 miles annually, according to division spokeswoman Laura Hoover.
Electric buses reduce air pollution inside and outside a bus, making them safer for children and the community, Hoover said.
Culpeper County last year received $530,000 for the two vehicles through the Clean School Bus Program, and will cover additional costs with pandemic-relief dollars.
“We were hopeful we would have them by now, but the delivery date has been pushed back to October for those,” Hoover said.
Culpeper Public Schools plans to use the buses in town, where the population is most dense and where most industry is located, so as to maximize the positive environmental impact.
At the time of last year’s grant award, school division Operations Executive Director Stacey Timmons said the school system believes electric buses may be the wave of the future.
The division hopes to expand beyond the initial two buses, according to Hoover.
Virginia leading the way
Dean Farmer, a vice president of sales with Sonny Merryman, said Virginia is No. 2 in the nation—behind California—for the number of electric school buses on the road.
He said his company is not the dealer for the two buses Culpeper has on order, but would like to get the county as a future customer.
While supply-chain issues everywhere continue to delay vehicle deliveries, Farmer said electric buses are arriving more quickly because they’re a production priority. There’s a six-month wait time for them, compared to a year for diesel buses.
Spanberger said she was curious to know what started the ball rolling.
Farmer responded, saying Dominion Energy sparked interest around the state in clean infrastructure with its $20 million investment several years ago in electric school buses.
“They put the first 50 on the road in Pittsylvania County,” he said. “Virginia is a true leader.”
School systems in Northern Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley and Hampton Roads have since added electric buses, with about 20 localities in all, Farmer said. The number of localities is expected to double this school year, he added. His company has delivered around 70 electric buses so date.
What is the most common reason that localities are seeking to convert, Spanberger asked.
“Primarily, clean energy,” Farmer said. “And it costs about 60 percent less to operate electric buses as opposed to a typical diesel bus over their lifetime. The initial capital investment is substantial, that’s where the federal grants help bridge that gap.”
Savings over time
An electric school bus costs around $375,000 each compared to $125,000 for a diesel bus. It’s extra for the charging equipment—$15,000 to $100,000 more, depending on the speediness of the battery charger.
Annual fuel savings are substantial, especially with higher diesel costs. On average, an electric school bus can travel 140 miles per charged battery.
“It doesn’t drive any different than a regular school bus, but so much quieter,” Farmer said as the bus drove down the road. “The technology for electric school buses developed over the last five, 10, 15 years, and it really just became a viable reality in the past two to three years.”
Federal funding has made the difference. An estimated 40 percent of Virginia school districts applied for the latest round of grants, Sonny Merryman employees said.
“The programs we (support at) the federal level are supporting the way industry wants to be going, and the school districts and the kids,” Spanberger said.
The congresswoman noted the health risks of breathing diesel fumes, especially for young people with asthma. Diesel contributes to carbon-emissions pollution and quickens the impact of climate change, advocates said during Tuesday’s press conference.
Dan Taylor of the Blue Green Alliance, based in D.C., said the coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations is committed to creating and maintaining high-quality jobs.
The Clean School Bus Program will do just that, he said. It’s good for the climate, public health and for creating union jobs, Taylor said.
“We think investments like this really demonstrate that we don’t have to choose between the environment and good jobs, we can have both,” he said.
Care for the environment
Julie Kimmel of the Moms Clean Air Force, a community of 1.3 million parents united for climate and air solutions to protect the health of American youth, said the conversion to electric buses is a huge deal for Virginia families.
“School buses capture kids’ imagination, are happy symbols of raising thoughtful and educated children, but they are also a source of concern for many parents,” Kimmel said, noting that 129,000 Virginia children have asthma. “Long rides on diesel buses can feel like a matter of life and death.”
Children are more vulnerable to many effects of the climate crisis, which threatens human survival on our planet, she said.
“If you want to protect our children’s health and future, you cannot afford to put another fossil-fuel-powered bus on the road,” said Kimmel, the mother of a second-grader with whom she walks to school in Northern Virginia.
Councilman Brown, a commercial and industrial union electrician, attended Tuesday’s press conference out of support for saving local governments money and for creating high-paying jobs in the process. Plus, the environment, he said.
“Anytime we have green initiative, there will always be these jobs that come along for people that work with their hands,” Brown said. “I am college-educated, but I am still out in the field every day working with my hands—blue-collar jobs (have been the) backbone of America for so long.”
In addition, he said, diesel prices are through the roof now, a cost for which many local governments have not budgeted.
“Being able to have a much more even-keeled, steady source of energy for our buses is really great to think about,” the Culpeper councilman said.
Michael Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said there is no better example and symbol for good-paying jobs, innovation and clean air than an electric school bus.
“It’s great that we’re moving in the right direction, we’re getting stuff done,” Town said at the press conference.
Many advocates have been fighting hard for state and federal legislation to seriously address climate change, Town said.
“We’re doing so by building 21st-century infrastructure, bringing good-paying jobs to Virginia, and helping clean up our environment,” he said. “Our work as advocates only pays off when we have elected officials who listen to and act on behalf of their constituents.”
This isn’t the federal government saying that communities should have electric buses, Spanberger said.
“This is the communities saying we really like these things, they are expensive to get over that first hurdle of purchase,” she said.
“And the federal government saying, OK, we are going to support … these local decisions because long-term it is good for our national goals of reducing emissions, it’s good for the health of our children and for our work to combat climate change. It’s also what communities … want to see on the ground. We are being responsive to those local needs.’ ”