In rural Missouri, it’s much more likely to find a diesel truck on the road than an electric vehicle.
But come this fall, dozens of electric school buses will hit Missouri roads thanks to a new federal rebate program that enables school districts to switch their diesel-powered bus fleets to electric. A Missouri school district superintendent says the electric buses will lower fuel costs, allowing them to invest the savings elsewhere.
“Our district’s diesel fuel costs are tremendous,” said Heath Oates, superintendent of western Missouri’s El Dorado Springs R-II School District, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “My initial estimates show we’re going to save around $200,000 a year, which is the cost of four beginning teachers with benefits.”
Rural school districts’ longer bus routes and lower population density mean they can have higher transportation costs than urban districts. Reducing fossil fuel dependency will lower those costs, say electric bus advocates.
El Dorado Springs R-II School District is one of 26 Missouri school districts awarded funds through the Clean School Bus program, managed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). School districts in nearly every state and Puerto Rico were awarded funds in the program’s 2022 funding cycle.
Money for the program comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which will allocate $5 billion for low- and zero-emissions school buses over the next five years, according to the EPA. Rural, low-income, and Tribal public schools were a priority during the first funding cycle.
“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allows EPA to prioritize funding for programs that help rural communities overcome the challenges of legacy pollution and invest in their future,” said an EPA spokesperson in an email to the Daily Yonder.
Legacy pollution refers to the hazards caused by abandoned coal mines and orphaned oil and gas wells that are commonly found in rural areas. One of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s goals is to invest in rural communities affected by this pollution, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The Clean School Bus program is an example of such investment, according to the EPA. Program awardees say the electric buses will increase their energy independence in rural areas that are hit especially hard by volatile fuel prices, according to recent research from Iowa State University.
“We’ll be able to control costs locally in a way that we can’t if fossil fuels are our only choice,” Superintendent Oates said.
Rural Challenges to a Green Transition
As school districts begin the electric bus transition, bus providers are figuring out how to best serve rural communities that have no electric vehicle infrastructure and longer travel distances.
According to First Student, the largest school bus company in North America, electric buses will need to be equipped with batteries that hold enough power to transport students morning and afternoon through remote areas. Bus providers will need to know the mileage, local topography, and average speeds of the school districts’ bus routes to determine battery size.
“It’s not just the length of the route,” said Kevin Matthews, head of school bus fleet electrification at First Student, in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “It’s how much time the bus is back at the facility midday in order to get that top-off charge and how does topping off that charge impact pricing. Are the prices of electricity higher during the middle of the day? We need to calculate that into our approach as well.”
All these questions will take time to answer, but First Student plans to put electric buses on the roads as early as next fall, including in Missouri’s El Dorado Springs R-II School District. The district is one of the more rural places First Student has served, according to Matthews, and the company looks forward to applying the information they learn there to similar rural school districts that are transitioning to electric buses.
Future Rural Outreach in the Clean School Bus Program
There are four more Clean School Bus award cycles planned over the next four years. While rural communities were a priority in this round of funding, more districts will be included in the next rounds, according to the EPA.
Even so, the EPA said it will continue to work and communicate specifically with rural applicants. This will include rural-focused webinars, rural outreach about funding availability, and technical assistance for rural applicants.
“EPA has and will continue to work and communicate with rural applicants in a number of ways,” an EPA spokesperson said.