One by one, the big yellow diesel-powered school buses shuttling kids back and forth in Colorado districts are rumbling along on their final routes and, after many thousands of miles, belching their last plumes of exhaust.
With increasing concerns about the harmful effects of school bus tailpipe emissions on both children’s health and the environment, state leaders and community advocates are pushing school districts to retire their old, pollutant-emitting school buses and replace them with electric ones.
It’s hardly a simple request for administrators like Albert Samora, executive director of transportation for Denver Public Schools. A new electric school bus can cost about $400,000 — at least three times the price of a diesel school bus.
“Now the question is, ‘how do we get the funding?’” Samora said.
State legislators are answering that question with a new grant program aimed at helping districts and charter schools with the burdensome upfront costs of acquiring a new electric school bus. Lawmakers have set aside $65 million in grants so that districts can purchase and maintain electric buses, convert fossil-fuel buses to electric, invest in charging infrastructure and necessary upgrades, and rotate out old buses. For some districts, that means adding more electric buses to the small number they already have. For many others, it opens up a way to put their first electric bus on the streets and climb aboard a national movement to update school bus fleets with electric vehicles.
“No child should have to breathe toxic diesel exhaust fumes on their way to school, and by eliminating tailpipe emissions, electric school buses provide safer, healthier transportation options for our children while also cutting ozone causing air pollution from the transportation sector,” said Alex Simon, an advocate with CoPIRG. The statewide advocacy organization, which is active in a variety of public health and consumer issues, supported the bill that paved the way for the new grant program as part of a broader legislative initiative to improve air quality in Colorado.
Diesel exhaust and burning fossil fuels are two major sources of air pollution in Colorado as they produce ozone, which is linked to greenhouse gas pollution, Simon noted. Transportation is among the biggest sources of greenhouse gas pollution in Colorado, she noted, citing a 2021 report from Gov. Jared Polis’ office.
And that exhaust impacts the health of children and communities in the short term and long term, said Juan Roberto Madrid, a clean transportation and energy policy advocate for GreenLatinos in Colorado, which supported the bill that created the grant program. The nonprofit, based in Washington, D.C., works to change environmental policies to improve the health and wellbeing of Latino communities and other communities of color.
Acute exposure to diesel emissions from school bus tailpipes as children wait to board or as they sit and ride, breathing contaminated air along the way, can result in irritated eyes, sore throats and shortness of breath, Madrid said. Repeated exposure can lead to chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. He compares the dangers to those associated with breathing air during a heavy wildfire.
“The difference is our kids are getting it in a smaller dose, but they’re getting it prolonged,” Madrid said, adding that exposure to diesel emissions can spike emergency room visits and translate to missed school days.
The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment is currently devising a plan on how to distribute grants to maximize the conversion of school buses to electric, according to CDPHE spokeswoman Leah Schleifer.
Among the school districts and charter schools the state department will prioritize are those that have a high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch — a federal indicator of poverty — as well as those in rural communities and those in areas that need to reduce ozone pollution to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards, Schleifer wrote in an email. Those areas battling high ozone pollution are concentrated in the Denver metro area and the North Front Range, she said.
School districts and charter schools will also be able to use grant dollars toward vans or similar vehicles that regularly pick up and drop off students.
The state’s grant funding won’t go far enough to convert all school buses in all of Colorado’s 178 school districts to electric, but proponents say it’s a critical first step to swap out buses that have long put children’s health and the environment at risk.
Districts can also build out their electric school bus fleets by tapping into federal funds, including the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program, which is doling out $5 billion over the next five years so that districts can invest in zero-emission and low-emission school buses. The program’s first stage of funding will be anchored by $500 million in rebates.
CDPHE will announce grant recipients next year, after the EPA reveals award recipients this fall “to leverage our state funds to ensure the largest number of fossil fueled buses are converted to zero emissions vehicles,” Schleifer said.
Electric school buses have already gained traction in several districts
Samora, of DPS, purchased Colorado’s first electric school bus in 2018 when he worked for Boulder Valley School District. After he moved to DPS in 2019, he ordered an electric school bus for the district and has another two on the way.
Meanwhile, with a fleet of about 335 buses, DPS is no longer buying diesel, instead using gasoline as a stepping stone on the path to electric buses. While still a fossil fuel, gasoline is cleaner out of a bus’ tailpipe. Samora said.
DPS, the state’s largest school district, purchased its three electric school buses through a nearly $10 million state grant program developed out of a settlement with Volkswagen Group of America. DPS shelled out about $70,000 for its first electric school bus and about $80,000 for both the second and third buses, while the grant — which was overseen by CDPHE and the Regional Air Quality Council — paid the rest.
DPS also received funding help to install a $30,000 charging station, Samora said.
It’s a “daunting” process to convert a school bus fleet to electric, he said, with many steps required to set up the infrastructure. That includes installing electric charging stations, working with an energy company to make sure the grid has adequate power and training technicians to work on high-voltage electric vehicles.
“There’s a lot to be done in order to get the electric infrastructure in place to function 100% on a large scale,” Samora said.
But for all heavy lifting an electric bus entails, Samora anticipates the district will save money mile by mile. DPS projects it will pay about $0.35 per mile with an electric bus, compared to about $0.69 per mile with a brand new diesel-powered bus.
However, at least 10 more years will pass before the district’s electric school buses start to pay for themselves, he said. Right around then, the district will also have to replace their batteries, which have a warranty of eight years and currently cost at least $60,000, according to information Samora has received.
Nearby, Aurora Public Schools has also started to steer toward electric school buses, purchasing seven that began arriving in the spring along with three charging stations to power them. Each bus cost more than $369,000, with the buses and charging stations adding up to nearly $2.2 million total, which the district paid for upfront. Through a grant from the state program that emerged after the settlement with Volkswagen Group of America, APS will be reimbursed for 80% of the cost of all seven buses, so long as it scraps seven of its diesel buses that have operated since before 2009, said Anthony Sturges, chief operating officer of the district. The grant is also funding the three charging stations, which together cost about $90,000.
The buses belong to a broader effort to transform the Aurora Community Campus — which houses several district schools and Pickens Technical College — into a more environmentally minded hub. That includes plans to install a solar bus canopy that will protect electric school buses while also powering them along with adjacent buildings, said Marcus Harper, energy and building optimization coordinator for the district.
APS, Colorado’s fifth largest school district, is also focused on converting other district vehicles to electric and recently won another grant it used to purchase three electric trucks for its nutrition services department.
Sturges, who is optimistic that electric buses will save the district money long term, said APS will continue to be “very aggressive” in trying to secure more electric vehicles and buses, particularly through state and federal funding opportunities.
Without that help, the technology is simply out of reach, said Janet Ulrich, director of transportation.
“They are kind of cost prohibitive without some kind of grant,” Ulrich said, “so it does make it challenging for districts.”
Some of Colorado’s rural districts are also making headway in upgrading their school bus fleets with electric buses. By this next school year, Steamboat Springs School District — a district of 2,640 students — will have seven electric buses transporting kids.
Director of transportation Casey Ungs sees them as a far safer ride for children and drivers, not only because of how much they cut down on pollution but also because of how quiet they are.
“You’re able to be more aware of traffic and vehicles around you just with having less noise,” Ungs said, adding that school buses are one of the best uses of electric vehicles because of the short distances they drive in heavily populated areas.
At the southern edge of the state, Durango School District 9-R set one electric school bus in motion earlier this year and plans to apply to the state’s new grant program with an eye to debut more electric school buses, said Daniel Blythe, director of transportation for the district of nearly 5,800 students.
The new bus was at the center of a pilot project led by La Plata Electric Association, which took the bus one step further with vehicle-to-grid technology. That technology, which transportation directors see becoming more common in the future, allows the bus battery to push energy back onto the grid during peak hours, said Dominic May, an energy resource program architect with La Plata Electric Association.
So the bus will complete morning pickups and drop-offs throughout the district before returning to the bus depot to plug back into the charger. By midafternoon, the fully charged bus will head back out onto the road to whisk kids home from school. Once the bus gets back to the depot, it’s plugged into the charger once again. But at that time, the energy utility can take energy out of the bus and put it back on the grid, May said.
“It’s the same energy we put out earlier, but it’s a time we really need it,” May said, explaining that energy is most needed during cold and dark winter evenings.
The bus can pull 30 houses off the grid for two hours, he said, saving the electric association’s membership $1,200 a month.
Additionally, the vehicle-to-grid electric school bus saves the school district about $10,000 in fuel and maintenance costs a year.
May sees a lot of potential in the state’s new grant program as well as the federal funds available to districts to outfit their fleets with electric buses. The grants won’t be enough to electrify every school bus in the state, but they’ll help get more buses rolling, he said.
“The first one’s the hardest,” he said.