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California Is Throwing Kids, Parents and Taxpayers Under The E-Bus



California officials are tacitly admitting that zero-emission school buses will not perform as well as traditional buses, says Kerry Jackson. (Shutterstock)
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Starting in 2035, all California school buses will have to be zero-emission vehicles. A smart move? Not unless electric buses, which will make up the majority of the future green school buses, suddenly become more dependable, more affordable, and safer.

Portrait of Kerry Jackson, a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute

Kerry Jackson


Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed into law Assembly Bill 579, which requires that, by Jan. 1, 2035, “all newly purchased or contracted school buses of a local educational agency (LEA) to be zero-emission.”

Almost hilariously, the law allows agencies “to request a one-time extension for up to five years if the LEA determines that the purchase or contracting of a zero-emission school bus is not feasible due to both terrain and route constraints and if certain conditions are met.” In other words, officials are expecting that zero-emission school buses will not perform as well as traditional buses, 90% of which run on diesel fuel (a safe, energy efficient, reliable and durable source of energy).

Furthermore, extensions will be granted to “frontier school districts through Jan. 1, 2045, if certain conditions are met.”

Limited Range and Higher Costs

Both exceptions are tacit admissions of electric vehicles’ defects, starting with range limits (on average about 100 miles), which will be shortened by heavy loads, bitter weather and the strain of pushing up hills with kids on board. This is not theoretical but knowledge gained through experience.

Imagine a busload of kids stranded at the farthest reaches of a route in one of those “frontier school districts” – many of which are located in and around the Central Valley – on a frigid or rainy day, waiting on a diesel bus to pick them up and finish the job because the charge on their e-bus wasn’t sufficient. It would be a nightmare for both students and parents.

Those same parents will also get sticker shock when their districts start shopping for e-buses. An e-version of the smaller Type A school bus can cost $250,000 while the same sized diesel will cost from $50,000 to $65,000. Full-size e-buses start at around $320,000 and can reach $440,000. A large diesel bus, however, is a relative bargain at $100,000.

Add to these purchases the higher insurance premiums that will be needed to keep e-buses on the road. According to Pacific Gas & Electric, the cost of insuring an e-bus fleet is almost four times as high as insuring a diesel fleet. Could be, though, that that’s merely a starting point. Underwriters are not blind to the expensive fire losses and the steep repair costs that are unique to electric vehicles.

Maybe the school districts that have tighter budgets, such as those with a history of extraordinary transportation costs, especially rural school districts throughout the Valley, can take advantage of the deadline extensions by pleading “certain conditions.” Or they can ask for a larger share taxpayer dollars beyond the 60% reimbursement they receive now for transportation costs. A former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, told CNBC the upfront costs of e-buses are “such that, without [government] incentives, you can’t break even [in comparison to diesel buses].” The federal government is, like California, already on the job, eager to hand out money it took from productive Americans and send it to school districts.

Unnecessary E-Bus Transition

Of course the zero-emission zealots promise that e-bus fleets eventually will save school districts money – after making the original high-dollar bus purchases and laying out capital to build charging infrastructure, which can cost four times as much as initial estimates. But officials would be naive to put their faith in such assurances. Whenever government promises that its coercive policies will save money, we should expect the opposite. The savings seem to never materialize.

Even with the law on the books, it’s not too late to ask why the transition to e-buses is necessary. Do they run that much cleaner than diesels? Not according to Engine Technology Forum, which says that 62% of diesel buses “in operation are equipped with the cleanest, near-zero emission advanced diesel engine technology.”

For more than a decade, diesel buses have been running on a “combination of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel” and advanced technology engines that “utilize particulate filters and selective catalytic reduction systems.” Consequently, newer buses emit “near-zero levels” of particulate matter, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide.

But that’s not good enough for policymakers who are ever-fanatical about boosting their green cred.

About the Author

Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

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