Eden Prairie Schools (EPS) operates a fleet of 104 buses and vans that transports more than 8,000 students to school, sporting events and field trips every day.
All of those buses are diesel-powered. They are among about 500,000 similar buses transporting 25 million children to and from school each day all across the country. They have been the workhorse in the school bus world for decades.
School buses travel about four billion miles each year, providing the safest transportation to and from school for more than 25 million American children every day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
So, what’s the problem?
Exhaust from diesel-fueled buses has a negative impact on human health, especially for children who have a faster breathing rate than adults and whose lungs are not yet fully developed, according to the EPA.
While new buses must meet EPA’s tougher emission standards, many older school buses continue to emit harmful diesel exhaust.
Even though many districts, including Eden Prairie, upgrade their buses periodically to burn a cleaner form of diesel fuel, fewer than 1% of school buses in the U.S. were electric as of August 2021. Just over 1,000 electric school buses, out of a total fleet of more than 480,000, were on the road at that time, according to the World Resources Institute.
Sulfur is the difference
Children on diesel school buses are exposed to 5 to 15 times more air toxins than everyone else, according to the Clean Air Trust. About 90% of those 500,000 buses are diesel-powered and emit 3,000 tons of cancer-causing soot and 95,000 tons of smog-causing compounds.
Sulfur is the primary pollution-causing culprit in diesel fuel. Newer clean diesel fuel has 97% percent less sulfur than traditional diesel. That reduction in sulfur leads to significantly reduced pollutants emitted by diesel engines.
So why not replace those 104 Eden Prairie buses right now?
First the good news. All but 10 of Eden Prairie’s diesel-powered buses are classified as clean diesel, according to Jason Mutzenberger, EPS executive director of business services. “And those are scheduled to be replaced within the next two years,” he said.
Here’s the bad news. Electric buses cost about $340,000 each, and charging stations could run another $50,000 or so, Mutzenberger said. Current diesel-powered buses cost $110,000 each.
More potential good news: the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) that was signed into law in November 2021 included billions in funding dedicated exclusively for electric school bus procurements.
EPA will offer a total of $5 billion between fiscal years 2022 and 2026 to fund the replacement of existing school buses with low- or zero-emission school buses. Each year, $500 million will be available exclusively for electric school buses, and $500 million will be available for electric buses and multiple types of cleaner alternative fuel school buses.
EPA can offer grants and rebates to assist fleets in purchasing new, cleaner school buses and the associated charging and fueling infrastructure. Awards will be broadly distributed geographically, according to the EPA website.
The problem is, no one knows right now who will get money, how much or when.
Meanwhile, Eden Prairie has a 15-year bus replacement cycle, which means it purchases around seven new buses each year, most recently in February 2022 when the purchase of seven new buses was approved.
Those buses were replaced primarily due to high mileage and increasing maintenance costs.
Grants hard to come by
There are several ways to help pay for replacing buses in the form of grants, loans, vouchers, and rebates from federal, state and local governments.
EPS has focused on applying for grants, but hasn’t been awarded any grant funds to date, Mutzenberger said.
“We continue exploring options as a district on how to jump into the EV bus market,” he said. “One of those options has been applying for grants as they become available. To date, we haven’t been awarded anything, but hopefully, that will change soon and allow us to purchase a couple of EV buses.”
Regular bus upgrades have made the district ineligible for some grants offered by Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
“Those grants were designed to get the older engines off the road,” Mutzenberger said.
In November 2021, the MPCA awarded $2.1 million in grants for an electric school bus pilot project. Those grants have been awarded to pay for new electric buses in Faribault, St. Paul, Columbia Heights, Morris, Osseo and Fergus Falls.
Minnesota has a stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Changing from diesel to all-electric buses can reduce GHG emissions by at least 29 tons per vehicle, according to the MPCA. Awarded grant projects are anticipated to reduce pollution from GHG emissions by 1,120 tons.
EPS did apply for a Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) grant from the EPA.
“We were just notified in early March that we were not awarded the grant and sit at #114 on the wait list and likely will not receive any funding,” Mutzenberger said. “We have not applied for any additional grants at this time.”
The district continues to work with multiple vendors to discuss costs and financing options, he said.
“My hope is for the district to create a sustainable plan for replacing diesel buses with electric school buses, versus just purchasing one electric bus,” Mutzenberger said. “We desire to make a greater impact within our community and state.”