The Wheels on the (Electric) Bus
Westchester school districts are on a bumpy road to convert their transportation fleets from diesel
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Concerned parents and climate activists throughout Westchester are coming together to advocate for school districts county-wide to replace their fossil fuel-emitting diesel school buses with electric vehicles, an integral part of New York’s transition to clean renewable energy.
Earlier this year, New York’s chapter of Mothers Out Front (MOF), a national movement of mothers working to address issues related to climate change, hosted a webinar on the topic. Co-hosted by County Executive George Latimer and Peter McCartt, director of the county’s Office of Energy and Sustainability, the virtual forum detailed how school districts could begin the process and apply for available state funding.
Currently, there are an estimated 1,000 school buses operating throughout the county. Because the majority of the buses run on diesel fuel, transportation to and from school emits significant carbon loads into the atmosphere and, in turn, exacerbates climate change.
Additionally, recent research has found that children who ride on diesel buses have a higher risk of developing cancer later in life, particularly lung cancer. Based on lifetime risks, governmental regulators estimate that diesel exhaust is responsible for 125,000 cancers nationwide.
The particles present in diesel exhaust also impair the lungs and aggravate diseases like emphysema and bronchitis and can worsen or trigger asthma attacks. Idling, which still occurs despite an anti-idling law making it illegal to do so in Westchester, only makes matters worse.
Amy Albenda Hill, a parent and member of MOF Rivertowns based in Tarrytown, began advocating for this issue because, like other mothers, she was concerned about her children’s futures due to climate change.
“We wanted to take action instead of feeling nervous and like it was out of our hands,” Albenda Hill says. “As a group of moms in Westchester, we felt like we needed to do something, and electric school buses seemed like a perfect area [to focus on].”
“There are the environmental benefits, health benefits for children and the community, and, despite the initial high price tag of an electric school bus, there are long-term savings,” Albenda Hill adds. “If you can get over that initial sticker shock and think long term, it’s a win-win-win.”
WATCH THE VIDEO: Mothers Out Front Webinar
Depending on the size and model of the vehicle, an electric school bus can range from $200,000 to the mid $300,000s. A larger 90-seat model, which was recently on display at Fox Lane High School in Bedford to showcase the alternative to district board members and education officials from across the region, carries a hefty price tag of $386,975.
While cost is certainly the biggest obstacle to making the switch to electric — vehicles can be at least two or three times as expensive as diesel buses and also have additional costs associated with acquiring and installing charging equipment — advocates say long-term benefits and lower fuel and maintenance costs must also be taken into account when making purchase decisions.
In Croton-on-Hudson, progress and setbacks
Last spring, voters in the Croton-Harmon school district approved the purchase of a 66-passenger electric bus and two electric minibuses.
The purchase of the electric vehicles was contingent on the passage of the borrowing plan for two-fossil fuel buses, as well as the availability of certain quantities of subsidies from the state.
All of the four propositions passed, likely buoyed by analysis conducted by Croton100 — an all-volunteer community-based organization that works to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Croton-on-Hudson to net-zero by 2040 through a combination of advocacy, education, and campaigns — which found that the total cost of owning, maintaining, and fueling an electric vehicle in its 10- to 12-year lifespan would be less than a diesel bus.
According to Croton100’s financial breakdown, the district would break even cost-wise in six years for a 35-passenger bus, with $38,00 in savings over 12 years, and eight years for a 66-passenger bus. And from the moment electric wheels hit the ground, they would emit significantly less carbon.
By creating the Bus Electricification for School Transportation (BEST) tool, Croton100 has established a framework that allows for easy comparison between electric school buses and fossil fuel buses.
Ultimately, passage of the ballot propositions wasn’t enough to purchase the three electric vehicles.
In order to qualify for state funding at the time, school districts needed to retire equivalent vehicles powered by diesel fuel and purchased before 2009 in accordance with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA)’s truck voucher inventive program. One of the minibuses the district had planned to retire used regular gasoline, disqualifying it.
The second minibus didn’t qualify for a $90,000 subsidy level the voters approved because it wasn’t heavy enough. While the district was awarded $60,000 for its lighter bus, that didn’t meet the threshold approved by voters.
In the end, the district was only able to acquire one with funding from NYSERDA. The 66-passenger bus will hopefully arrive in the district by next September.
“There’s still the question of an [electric] minibus that we could perhaps buy if we reapply,” Cristina Alvarez Arnold, a parent and member of MOF Northern Westchester based in Croton-on-Hudson, says. “We’d really like the school district to do that.”
This year, another bus bond proposition is up for voters in the district, which members of MOF Northern Westchester and Croton100 say fall short, primarily because of its vague nature.
The language on the ballot asks voters to approve the purchase of one 66-passenger school bus at the estimated cost of $382,000 and one approximately 20-passenger mini-bus at the estimated cost of $65,800. But because the proposition doesn’t specify what type of buses it intends to purchase or include the word electric anywhere, there is no guarantee any of the $447,800 will go toward an electric bus. This ambiguity doesn’t sit right with advocates.
Kristy Cohen, a parent and member of MOF Northern Westchester, notes that their group recently had a series of meetings with Superintendent of Schools Stephen Walker and was disappointed to find out that — aside from the additional purchases up for district voters’ approval in May — the district has also decided to purchase a new fossil fuel bus in connection with last year’s ballot.
“People’s reaction to change and progress — especially when money is in the picture — just seems to be completely irrational,” Cohen says. “They don’t look at the data.”
Because minibuses have been found by Croton100 to pollute more based on their mileage and how they’re used in the district, it has been recommended that the district prioritize purchasing electric minibuses before larger vehicles.
“If you’re managing a transportation fleet, you are in effect managing a carbon budget, and [the district] doesn’t seem to understand that they have that responsibility,” Patty Buchanan, a founding member of and current board member at Croton100, says. “Business as usual and falling back on fossil fuel vehicles when we know they’re harmful to our health and the atmosphere is causing such a perilous set of conditions for all of us — especially for young people.”
Buchanan says global scientists are telling us the pace we need to make deliberate, drastic reductions in carbon, and it’s not one bus a year in a 45-bus fleet.
“To see this school year’s budget with no commitment to an electric bus — there’s a possibility but no commitment — that’s far short of where we need to be,” Buchanan highlights.
Because of this year’s ambiguity on the ballot and the district’s missteps last year, Croton100 is encouraging eligible voters to vote no on the upcoming bus bond.
“We believe that the work undertaken by our district, along with the 2022-23 proposed budget, continue to balance our long-term commitment to environmental sustainability with the needs of our taxpayers,” says a statement provided by the Croton-Harmon district to Examiner+. “We encourage our community members to read more about our budget on our website and in our newsletters.”
Funds secured in Tarrytown
In Tarrytown, Albenda Hill says Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D-Pleasantville) became MOF Rivertowns’ champion, helping to secure funding for the district to purchase an electric bus.
“After meeting with our team several times, he offered to fill that funding gap,” Albenda Hill explains. “If the school put in the money that they were earmarking for a diesel bus, he offered to provide grant money to cover that extra $100,000-plus to pay for the electric bus and infrastructure.”
While the funds initially got frozen due to COVID, the district is now very close to having the funding come through. Albenda Hill says she is hopeful the district will be celebrating having its first electric bus in the near future.
Superintendent of Schools Christopher Borsari says the district has everything in place to purchase the 64-passenger electric bus secured with the funding, as well as an electric suburban, which will be used to transport students on the parkways where school buses are not allowed.
Borsari anticipates that the two electric purchases will be ordered soon but says that there is an estimated six-month wait time due to supply chain issues.
Once the order is made, the district will begin putting the infrastructure and charging station in place to support the two electric vehicles — likely over the summer. Borsari is hopeful the two vehicles will be on the roads at some point in the fall.
The first electric bus will be a part of a pilot program in the district, Abinanti explains, that will highlight what challenges the district may face using an electric vehicle and how to overcome them in the future when acquiring additional buses.
“We need to combat climate change, and this is part of the effort,” Abinanti says.
When asked how to address the high cost of electric vehicles, which, without external funding, may be prohibitive for some districts, Abinanti highlights that subsidies from the state are the right way to go.
“We need to hold down property taxes, so we need to pay for any additional costs at the state level,” Abinanti says.
Heeding Gov. Hochul’s call
Governor Kathy Hochul’s state budget enacted in April requires all school buses purchased after 2027 to no longer run on fossil fuels. Additionally, she set the ambitious goal that will require all of the state’s 50,000 school buses to be electrified by 2035.
It’s expected that the federal Investment and Jobs Act will make $5 billion available within the next five years for electric and low-emission buses.
In New York, the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, which will be on voters’ ballots this November, will include dedicated funds for electric school buses and charging infrastructure. Originally lawmakers proposed that the Environmental Bond Act total $3 billion, but it recently got a $1.2 billion dollar boost.
State Senator Pete Harckham (D-Lewisboro), who organized the electric bus showcase at Fox Lane High School, says that in order to meet the ambitious goals of the New York’s landmark Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the state will need to increase its efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by transitioning to zero-emission vehicles, including school buses.
“The inclusion of $500 million in the upcoming Environmental Bond Act for electric school buses, which I led the fight for, signifies the seriousness of our commitment to this transition,” Harckham says. “Our electric bus demonstration in Bedford last month was a preview of what the beginning of a green school day will look like in the near future.”
Buchanan says if school districts have the funds and opportunity to get ahead of the requirements coming down the pike, they certainly should.
“You don’t want to be a laggard in the process, you want to be a leader,” Buchanan says. “We know that if by 2027 all purchases have to be electric, the fossil fuel vehicles are going to have less value over time. So if you have an option to do it today, why would you not do it?”
“We have a responsibility to align ourselves with the leadership of the state and really lean into the transition so that we don’t have stranded assets,” Buchanan adds.
Cohen agrees, noting that this has been a point of frustration.
“It seems like how can they even purchase the [gas] minibus with all these climate goals and mandates that are coming up?” Cohen asks. “We absolutely want to partner with our school district, but, at times, we do feel a bit at odds because when you’re an activist, you always feel like ‘How come no one else is feeling this pressure? Why is it just us?”
Alvarez Arnold highlights that with electric school buses, it’s also first-come, first-served, especially as many manufacturers are experiencing long lead times due to supply chain delays right now.
“We all know there are supply issues, and electric buses are no exception,” Alvarez Arnold says, noting other states like California and Maryland who have just put in large electric school bus orders. “There are real advantages to being quick-acting.”
Vehicle-to-grid pilot sees success in White Plains
In White Plains, a pilot program that added five electric school buses to the district’s 120-bus fleet in 2018 has seen success.
Done in partnership between the district’s transportation provider, National Express, electric school bus manufacturer Lion Electric, Con Edison, and NYSERDA, the program looked to test the operational viability of the vehicle-to-grid (V2G) system.
Because school buses in White Plains are run by National Express as opposed to district-run like Tarrytown and Croton-Harmon, the pilot program did not have to get voter approval.
“NYSERDA was able to secure a grant of $120,000 dollars per bus through the then truck voucher program, and Con Edison also provided $100,000 per bus to test the operational viability of the vehicle-to-grid system,” Transportation Supervisor Sergio Alfonso says. “So this was cost-neutral to the school district, procured at no cost to our taxpayers.”
In April, Con Edison announced its findings of the three-year pilot at the New York International Auto Show. Under the project, five electric buses took elementary schoolers in White Plains to school each day, and the batteries on the buses were charged and discharged at the transportation depot in North White Plains.
Con Edison retrofitted three of the five buses with power converters, which allowed them to perform V2G bi-directional charging. The converters, in turn, allowed Con Edison to reverse the flow of power into the grid when the buses were not transporting children.
The study looked to determine both the technical and economic viability of using V2G-equipped buses to support the grid at times when demand for power is highest, typically on hot summer afternoons.
“Our study yielded rich information about the potential to deploy e-school buses on a large scale to discharge power into the grid at times when our customers need it most,” Leonard Singh, Con Edison’s senior vice president, Customer Energy Solutions, said in a statement, highlighting that the electrification of school buses throughout the state holds potential benefits for not only school districts but also utility customers.
While some challenges remain (as is the case and expected with new technology), Con Edison reported that bus drivers, riders, and the school district were pleased overall with the performance of electric buses compared to diesel ones.
Today, Alfonso says the buses are running well and have integrated naturally into the district’s day-to-day transportation operations. More recently, Alfonso notes, the district used some of the electric buses on athletic trips, demonstrating how they can successfully hold a charge to travel longer distances as well as their normal routes within White Plains.
“They’re running great just as a normal part of our fleet,” Alfonso says.
Perceived risks overshadow long-standing health and climate concerns
As districts throughout Westchester grapple with making the switch to electric, parents contend that the known, ongoing effects of continuing to operate diesel and gas buses are more dangerous than any perceived risks that come with making the switch to electric.
Concerns surrounding an electric bus’ ability to maintain a charge on its route, get up a steep hill, or maintain stable heating or air conditioning, they say, can be easily disproven by the reliability of electric vehicles and successful pilot programs in nearby districts like White Plains.
“[At the showcase] in Bedford, just riding in an electric bus allowed people to see that actually, [electric] vehicles have more torque than a gas or diesel vehicle,” Cohen says. “They can zip up a hill like nobody’s business.”
Albenda Hill underscores that while those fears and trepidations from the general public and decision-makers do remain a hurdle, increased educational and funding opportunities can hopefully help improve the situation because the truth of the matter remains: the transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
“This is the perfect example of where we have the technology and the solution,” Alvarez Arnold says. “We really just need the political will.”
Cohen emphasizes that there is so much to do for our planet and our health, especially for young people, and electrifying school bus fleets at an increased pace would be one step in the right direction.
“The children are our future generation, and if we can get electric buses to protect them, why not do it?”
Bailey Hosfelt is a full-time reporter at Examiner Media, with a special interest in LGBTQ+ issues and the environment. Originally from Connecticut and raised in West Virginia, the maternal side of their family has roots in Rye. Prior to Examiner, Bailey contributed to City Limits, where they wrote about healthcare and climate change. Bailey graduated from Fordham University with a bachelor's in journalism and currently resides in Brooklyn with their girlfriend and two cats, Lieutenant Governor and Hilma. When they're not reporting, Bailey can be found picking up free books off the street, shooting film photography, and scouring neighborhood thrift stores for the next best find. You can follow Bailey on Twitter at @baileyhosfelt.
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Writer’s Methodology Statement: After our print coverage of the Mothers Out Front webinar on electrifying school bus fleets, I wanted to do a deeper dive into some of the challenges and successes various school districts throughout Westchester were experiencing in making the switch. I spoke to clean energy advocates from Croton100 and Mothers Out Front, school officials, and politicians who have been closely involved in this topic. My reporting was bolstered by resources detailing carbon emissions from fossil fuel versus electric vehicles, health risks from governmental and medical studies, and New York legislation (both current and forthcoming).
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