On Green New Deals and Electric Buses

Senator Bernie Sanders recently released his version of a “Green New Deal,” proposing $16.3 TRILLION worth of federal direct investment in the US economy to fight climate change. Of course the scale of this plan, especially with little more than bullet-point details, is easy to brush aside as an attention-grabbing pipedream. But a high-level proposal to federally fund electrification of all school and transit buses for $400B caught the eye of one Vox writer, and has since garnered more attention across urbanist media.

I’m not quite sure how Sanders’ policy team built its estimate, but unless it’s accounting for massive waste from poor, haphazard manufacturing (i.e. the Chinese model), that total is somewhere between $150B-$200B too high. Even high estimates of $400k per school bus (~500k nationally) and $1M per transit bus (~70k nationally) only produce a total of $270B. That includes (depot) charging infrastructure procurement and installation, workforce development, and sales tax.

However, the total cost may be significantly lower due to multiple factors:

  1. Many school buses are smaller (Type A and B), typically built on a truck chassis, and won’t cost as much as the (Type C and D) large buses used for the estimate. (For more on bus types, see this primer)
  2. Costs of both electric school buses and electric transit buses would come down significantly from their 2019 numbers due to efficiencies from scaled manufacturing.
  3. Costs of both may also decrease due to cheaper and better batteries (allowing for closer to 1:1 replacement with non-electric buses)

There are some factors that could escalate the all-in cost, but more on that in a moment.

The federal government is uniquely positioned to dramatically improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with funding for transportation assets that are already largely supported by federal or state funds. While his objective is laudable, Sanders plan is merely a very rough order of magnitude and fails to account for the current state of our electric bus industry, implementation challenges, and expected technological advancements that should reduce costs as the industry scales.

Los Angeles County Metro Transportation Authority battery electric bus and on-route overhead charger
(Credit: LA Metro)

Broadly speaking, we’re seeing a fundamental disconnect between many climate activists and the industries they seek to transform, in everything from agriculture to energy production to transportation. The best intentions can’t solve for immediate supply chain, technological, or workforce limitations, and aimlessly throwing many billions of dollars at these problems will prove wasteful and politically detrimental. Instead, we need to recognize those barriers to rapid adoption, and structure programming around them.

Climate activists’ love of public transit doesn’t necessarily translate into working knowledge of the industry, or its vehicle technologies. One does not simply replace a diesel or CNG bus by purchasing and deploying a battery electric bus. Transit operators, school districts, and other government agencies must model routes, procure and install charging infrastructure, train workforces to manage the vehicles and infrastructure, and negotiate rates with their electric utilities prior to deployment. Agencies committing to hydrogen require similar planning and implementation effort.

Oftentimes, battery electric buses are incapable of 1:1 diesel bus replacement due to range limitations, requiring transit agencies to either procure additional buses or install expensive on-route chargers. Until battery range improves significantly, transit and school bus operators will struggle to replace all of their diesel, CNG, and propane buses. Failure to plan adequately can produce disastrous consequences, potentially leaving operators unable to meet operational requirements and prompting a return to their old vehicles. And unlike the Chinese, we’re far more sensitive to squandered government resources.

Today’s zero-emission transit bus market is barely five years old, despite low-scale development dating back to the 1990s. Some agencies are starting to procure without federal discretionary grant or Volkswagen settlement support, but the vast majority of purchases still involve significant outside funding. The school bus market is even newer. One could launch a multibillion dollar federal grant program for zero-emission bus deployments tomorrow, and even with those guarantees, manufacturers would need several years to build sufficient capacity.

Any federal program promoting development and adoption of these buses needs to respect these short- and medium-term limitations, and incorporate a thoughtful ramp-up period. To ensure agencies deploy the right technologies – bus and infrastructure – and maintain effective operations, programs should also incorporate workforce development and planning activities. Finally, we need a broader education campaign aimed at policymakers at all levels of government, helping them understand not only the benefits of this transition, but also technical and financing challenges.

For instance, in contrast with the transit industry, many school districts do not actually own their school buses. Many opt to lease vehicles and/or outsource operations, raising grant eligibility questions that federal legislators haven’t seen in transit funding programs. The previously-cited Vox piece also noted Senators Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and others recently cosponsored draft legislation that would provide up to $1 billion in grants ($200M annually from FY20-24) for school bus electrification. This would mirror the FTA’s Low or No Emission Vehicle Program that has funded most electric bus adoption in the transit industry over the past five years. Yet, the draft legislation limits eligibility to public and non-profit entities only, and would exclude private fleet owners that lease vehicles to public agencies.

Nonetheless, we should be encouraged by increased legislative attention on these issues, and look for ways to refine these proposals for wider appeal. Multiple Democratic presidential candidates have included transit and school bus electrification in their “Green New Deal” platforms, however, these plans are targeted only at environmentally-concerned voters in their own party. Advocates at the local, state, and federal levels should look for ways to marry environmental objectives with economic development benefits that win over legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Blue Bird battery electric school bus
(Credit: A-Z Bus Sales)

In Georgia, I’ve promoted an electric school bus subsidy program for the better part of a year, best spelled out in this Twitter thread from April. Given potential health and environmental benefits, and the fact Blue Bird is headquartered and manufactures school buses in Fort Valley, Georgia (i.e., not metro Atlanta), I see this as an issue around which Georgia’s economic development professionals, Republican legislators, and the state’s environmental lobby can find common ground. We’ll need to find more of it to effectively combat climate change.

Views expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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