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NYSERDA official explains requirement that schools transition to electric buses by 2035

Adam Ruder, NYSERDA Director of Clean Transportation
Philip Kamrass
Adam Ruder, NYSERDA Director of Clean Transportation

In April 2022, New York approved a state budget that included a provision mandating that all school buses purchased by 2027 must be zero-emission and all district fleets must transition by 2035.

In a conversation with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley, NYSERDA Director of Clean Transportation Adam Ruder explains what schools will need to do and says the agency is helping schools transition:

What we're really doing right now is encouraging schools to start by undertaking a fleet electrification plan. This helps schools understand how electric buses can fit into their specific needs and requirements, their terrain, their climate, their bus routes, their logistics. And then we're really encouraging schools to start buying one or two electric buses now. We think that that is the best way to help them get some experience with the buses, understand what works for them, what is different about these buses, what's the same about the buses, help train the drivers, help train the mechanics and demystify an electric bus. Even in rural districts, the average bus route is only about 70 or 80 miles a day. And typical electric buses have a range of 100 to 200 miles today. So this is an attainable and achievable opportunity for every district in the state. 

You said 70 to 80 miles is the average route. But how far can they go on an average charge? 

The typical electric bus can go between 102 100 miles on a charge. 

How are you working with the school districts to deal with the lack of infrastructure, but these very large distances, without the EV infrastructure? 

It's a great question. What we're really encouraging schools to do is to start off with the easiest to electrify routes. The technology is continuing to improve. And between now and 2035, which is more than a decade, the technology is going to take leaps and bounds forwards. And as the technology improves and the schools get more experienced with actually operating these buses and we have a chance to build out more charging infrastructure across the state then we'll deal with the tougher routes. 

Adam Ruder, have you heard concerns from school districts, particularly in the North Country, about the climate aspects of this? We get really cold. Well we're supposed to get really cold in the winters in this region. 

Yes. Some schools have expressed concerns about cold weather operations. And electric school buses do you know take a range hit in the winter. But diesel buses also operate less efficiently in the winter as well. It is a challenge, but there are ways to address it. We've seen good examples of schools that have been able to integrate buses in cold weather climates. There are over 200 electric school buses operating in Quebec right now. We've heard good success stories from school districts out near Buffalo, in Montana, North Dakota. So this isn't just hypothetical. Schools are integrating electric buses into their operations in cold weather climates. 

The cost of buses. The EV buses are almost double what a diesel bus costs. How big a concern are you finding that is right now for the potential transition? 

You're right. The upfront cost of an electric school bus is significantly more than a diesel bus. But NYSERDA offers a school bus incentive program that can cover up to 100% of the difference in cost between a diesel bus and an electric bus. Our program also covers much of the cost of the charging infrastructure. There's also US EPA funding through the Clean School Bus program that can cover a major portion of the cost up to 90 or 95% of the cost of the bus. And there are programs from the utilities, from the electric utilities, to help cover some of the infrastructure costs. There are also tax credits from the federal government that are now able to be claimed by nontaxable entities like school districts. So when you combine all of those, often, the electric bus can be less expensive than a diesel once you've factored in all of those. 

I looked at one of the schools in New York that has gotten two EVs so far, and that's Alexandria Bay. And it wasn't just oh, we're going to go out and buy an EV bus and put it on the road. They looked at grants, which you've mentioned. But they had to have a National Grid site survey done. They had to have a bus route analysis done and they had to do an electrical update to their garage. That sounds like those are additional expenses and additional considerations. Are these typical things that schools will have to consider and are there other things schools will have to look into? 

Schools will need to look at a number of different factors when they're considering an electric bus purchase. Fortunately, NYSERDA has funding for schools to do a fleet electrification plan and we’ll cover up to 100% of that cost. That will look at the bus routes that a school has; look at the terrain and the climate; look at the electrical needs at the facility; look at the size of buses that they're operating now and the number of buses that they're operating now and help them come up with a plan of what it will take to electrify their fleet. The utilities also will help by providing at no cost to the district an analysis of what electrical upgrades might be needed at their facility. And we encourage every school district to take that as a first step in this process. But doing that study is really important to help you understand what's needed for your school district. And as I said, that's something that the state can cover the cost of. 

Why do we need to transition to EV buses? 

The transportation sector makes up about 30% of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. And there are more than 45,000 school buses in New York State, more than in any other state. So you know, school buses are a big piece of that emissions. Diesel school buses have negative health effects for students by breathing in the diesel fumes that can drift back into the bus. So we see electric school buses as a way to improve student health, improve safety. They are more cost effective. So they're going to help us meet our greenhouse gas goals, improve student health and improve the safety of our communities. 

Can the state meet the 2035 goal considering how many schools there are, how many buses need to be replaced? 

The only way to know is if we start. 

New York voters approved an environmental bond act that includes $500 million to help fund the transition to electric buses. 

Some Republicans in the legislature have called for the mandate to be rescinded or replaced with a pilot program.  In March, an amendment to a bill offered by Republican Senator George Borello of the 57th District to replace the mandate with a feasibility study was defeated. Dan Stec, a Republican from the 45th District, calls the EV bus mandate “expensive and unfeasible.”