In the heart of the United States, Virginia’s school districts are forging ahead in their commitment to a greener and more sustainable future. Despite a lack of state funding, they are making remarkable strides in replacing traditional, polluting diesel buses with electric alternatives. This blog explores the innovative approaches adopted by Virginia school districts, shedding light on the challenges they face, the initiatives driving change, and the promising future of electric school buses in the state.

Virginia Electric School Bus Surge

Virginia stands as a trailblazer, ranking fourth nationwide in the adoption of electric school buses. The impressive figure of 260 electric buses, either on the road or on order, places Virginia behind only California, Maryland, and New York. Notably, the state achieved this without significant state funding, relying on creative financing methods and federal support.

Overcoming Funding Challenges

Unlike states with robust incentives, Virginia’s last state funding allocation for electric buses was a one-time $24 million grant from the Volkswagen emissions cheating settlement five years ago. State lawmakers even blocked Dominion Energy from expanding its electric school bus pilot program in 2019. Despite these challenges, school districts in Virginia have increased their electric bus counts through federal funding, public-private partnerships, and independent purchases.

Momentum in Motion

Virginia’s commitment to electric school buses is gaining momentum. Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded Fairfax County Public Schools $16.5 million to purchase 42 electric buses, bringing the state’s total to over 300. Lynchburg City Schools also received funding in 2022, adding 25 electric buses to their fleet. These success stories exemplify the collaborative efforts of 14 Virginia school districts tapping into federal funding to embrace sustainable transportation solutions.

Innovative Leasing Models

In Manassas City, school transportation officials are pioneering a unique leasing model with Highland Electric Fleets, a Massachusetts-based company. By leasing buses, Manassas City School District is making a smooth transition to electric transportation without upfront costs. This public-private partnership not only includes the purchase of buses but also covers charging infrastructure, training, and a charge-readiness guarantee, demonstrating a sustainable and economically viable approach.

Individual District Initiatives

Fairfax County, responding to local pressure to reduce its carbon footprint, has become the first school district in Virginia to purchase three electric buses using its own funds. This independent initiative, coupled with the recent EPA funding, puts Fairfax County at the forefront of the electric school bus revolution.

Cost and Technology

While the benefits of electric school buses are undeniable, challenges persist. Cost remains a significant barrier, with electric buses being approximately three times more expensive than traditional diesel ones. In Virginia, the price tag for a 77-passenger electric bus is $368,500, compared to $120,099 for a diesel model. Tish Tablan, leading the Electrify Our Schools program at Generation 180, acknowledges the complexity of navigating the transition and emphasizes the need for support in understanding the technology and securing funding.

Funding Solutions and Tax Credits

Despite the higher initial costs, creative solutions are emerging. Lynchburg City Schools, for instance, discovered opportunities to offset expenses through federal IRA tax credits. This financial relief, combined with the support of the SLICE network, offers a way for school districts to manage costs associated with electric bus adoption.

Federal Initiatives

The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program prioritizes school districts with the highest shares of low-income and underserved households. Historically, these communities bear health burdens from tailpipe pollution, including ozone and particulate matter. Lynchburg City Schools Director of Transportation, Hope Watts, admits to initial sticker shock when facing over $1 million in bus upgrades and charging infrastructure. However, the SLICE network introduced Watts to federal IRA tax credits, easing the financial burden and making the transition more viable for the district.

Staying Ahead of the Curve

Lynchburg City Schools is taking a proactive approach, aiming to replace nearly half of its diesel bus fleet with electric buses. Director of Transportation Hope Watts envisions a future where the state or federal government mandates electric buses, and Lynchburg is prepared to lead the way. The EPA’s five-year, $5 billion grant program provides an opportunity for school districts to stay ahead of the curve and invest in sustainable transportation.

Managing Fleet Turnover

With an award of $9.8 million for 25 buses and chargers from the EPA, Lynchburg City Schools is making substantial strides in fleet electrification. Hope Watts is hopeful for additional funding to replace more buses before the grant program concludes in 2026. Lynchburg’s commitment goes beyond financial considerations; the district recognizes the environmental impact of transitioning to electric buses. Removing 25 diesel buses from the roads is equivalent to removing 300 cars for a year, a considerable contribution to a healthier environment.

Challenges in Grant Qualification

Despite the positive momentum, challenges persist. Lynchburg City Schools recently found out that it did not qualify for a second-round request for four additional buses. The EPA’s prioritization of school districts with the highest shares of low-income households, while noble, poses challenges for districts like Lynchburg, highlighting the need for more inclusive funding models.

Fairfax County’s Pioneering Efforts

Fairfax County’s commitment to electrification sets a precedent for other districts. With a mandate in place requiring all school buses to be electric by 2035, the district has already acquired 28 electric buses through various programs. Fairfax County’s Assistant Director of Transportation Services, Paul D’Andrade, highlights their unique approach as the first district in Virginia to purchase electric buses outright.

Sustaining Independent Funding

In addition to its 42 just-funded buses, the county had already acquired 28 electric buses from separate programs administered by the state Department of Environmental Quality and Dominion Energy. Each program provided money to cover the difference in price between an electric and diesel bus. In 2019, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam allotted more than $24 million of Virginia’s $93.6 million share of the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust toward clean school buses. A subsequent DEQ-operated program helped schools statewide buy 96 buses.

Lessons from Independent Purchases

While independent funding allows districts like Fairfax County to move swiftly, challenges lie ahead. Paul D’Andrade acknowledges the need for a staggered approach to fleet conversion. “We’re fortunate enough to have the budget, and my understanding is we’re the first district to buy electric buses outright,” he says. However, a gradual transition is crucial, anticipating that in five or six years, as prices drop and technology improves, the district can ramp up its adoption of electric buses.

Advocating for State Funding

Bobby Monacella, a key advocate from Mothers Out Front, continues to champion the cause at the General Assembly level. Despite previous legislative setbacks, efforts are underway to secure sustainable funding for electric buses across Virginia. Monacella emphasizes the long-term benefits of electric buses, citing their significant impact on reducing emissions and promoting children’s health.

Legislative Initiatives

In 2021, Mothers Out Front played a crucial role in initiating a bipartisan piece of legislation, House Bill 2118, creating a specific grant funding model for bus electrification over a 10-year span. Although the bill became law, a financing mechanism never materialized. Bobby Monacella, in conversation with Del. Holly Seibold, aims to reignite discussions about sustainable funding sources. While nothing is imminent, the persistence of advocates like Monacella indicates a determination to push for comprehensive state funding for electric school buses.

A Bright Future for Electric School Buses in Virginia

Virginia’s school districts are navigating challenges, leveraging innovative solutions, and demonstrating a commitment to a greener and more sustainable future. The surge in electric school bus adoption, despite financial obstacles, showcases the determination of educators, advocates, and policymakers to prioritize the well-being of students and the environment. As the momentum continues, Virginia stands poised to lead the nation in the electrification of school transportation, setting an inspiring example for others to follow.