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Schenectady
Sunday, May 19, 2024

Districts Express Worries Over the Cost of Electrifying Bus Fleets

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In the CAPITAL REGION, Shenendehowa Central ​School District is​ grappling with the state-imposed deadline to transition its bus fleet to electric by ⁢2035. The district is considering the construction ‍of a substation to power the vehicles,⁣ a project that could ‍cost over $30​ million.

The substation project is just one⁣ aspect of the costly endeavor to replace⁤ the district’s ‍217 gas-powered buses with electric ones and‍ install the ‍necessary charging stations. Shenendehowa district, one of the largest‍ in the ‌Capital Region, transports thousands of students ‍daily across a vast area of southern Saratoga County.

“Without the ⁤necessary electrical ⁣power⁣ supply to your campus bus parking area, no amount ⁣of money can help you move forward,” said Al Karam, Shenendehowa’s director of transportation.

Due to the high‌ costs and infrastructure requirements, school leaders in ‍the Capital Region fear they may not meet the state’s 2027 deadline to start‍ purchasing only electric buses and the ⁤ultimate 2035 deadline for fully electrified fleets. ​This mandate applies to all school bus operations in the ⁤state, including private ‌companies like First Student, which transports Schenectady City School District students.

An ⁢analysis by the Empire Center, an Albany-based⁣ think tank, estimated that replacing the ⁤50,000 school buses throughout New York with new electric vehicles could cost up to $8.9⁤ billion.⁤ New York is home to approximately 700 school districts and accounts for 10% of the country’s ‍school bus fleet.

Some state⁢ lawmakers have expressed concerns, even attempting ‍to repeal the mandate and⁤ extend the deadline. However, these efforts have not been successful.

State energy ⁤officials, on the other hand, are less worried as they continue to collaborate with districts across the state to assess​ their needs and provide funding avenues.

“We are working ⁢with⁤ over 200 schools to help⁤ them prepare for this‌ transition, which is the first step,” said Adam‍ Ruder, ⁢the director of ‌clean transportation with New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

The‍ push for bus fleet electrification is‍ part of​ the ⁣state’s broader ‌move towards greener energy and zero emissions.

However, some officials worry​ that district voters may not align with the state’s ⁤energy goals. In ⁣New York state, district residents are responsible for approving school budgets and propositions,‍ including bus and capital projects necessary ‌for the transition.

“The transition is expensive and the ⁣longer we delay, the ⁤shorter the time period we ‍have, which means we have to purchase more electric buses per year to meet the deadline. We’re talking⁢ millions,”‌ Karam said.

THE ⁤COST OF TRANSITION

Shenendehowa district‌ is considering building a substation to provide an ⁤additional four to six megawatts⁣ of power on‌ top of‍ its ‍current usage. The district currently uses two megawatts of power at its ⁣bus compound. Karam explained that one megawatt can power approximately 55 ⁤buses. The district has also ⁣explored the option of running a large ​power line to a power‍ distribution station near Grooms Road, ‍which could cost the⁤ district $3 to $4 million per mile. Given that Grooms Road is about five miles from ‌the Shen campus, this ​could potentially cost​ the district $20 million.

However, even if National‌ Grid⁢ could supply the needed power today, the district would still face significant costs to install the necessary wiring and conduits for chargers, ‍Karam said.

The ⁢district cannot purchase any more electric buses until​ it resolves its ⁤power supply issue. It is currently awaiting four⁤ electric buses and two 60-kilowatt chargers.

Dave Christopher, the executive director ‍of the New York Association of‌ Pupil Transportation, acknowledged that this is an extreme situation ‍for a district, but it ⁤is nonetheless concerning.

“The cost of infrastructure is largely unknown because every school ⁤district has different infrastructure needs,” he ‌said. “Some school districts may need more cabling for more electricity but others may need new ‌garages,⁣ substations. ⁢The Shen situation is the extreme.”

At ‌Mohonasen‌ Central ​School District in Schenectady ⁢County,‍ Superintendent Shannon Shine estimated that transitioning its fleet⁤ of 57⁤ vehicles to electric and installing‍ the necessary infrastructure could cost over $25 million. This ⁣cost is “excessively expensive” for the district of around 2,700 students, he said.

“I am not opposed to using ⁢zero-emission buses, but considering the⁢ cost alone, I cannot see how such costs ‍can be ‌borne across New York state, even if implemented gradually; there simply doesn’t seem to be enough state revenue to​ make⁢ this happen,” Shine said.

Scotia-Glenville Central School District has been actively researching the transition from ‍their fleet of 48 gas-powered vehicles to electric for the past two years.

Initial estimates suggest the shift will cost around $30 million, though a final price tag is still being determined, said Andrew Giaquinto, ‌the district’s business manager.

Electric buses cost about $400,000, which ⁢is around three⁣ times as much as‌ gas-powered buses, said Brian Fessler, the director of government ‌relations for the New ⁤York State⁢ School Boards Association.

“That cost has increased a bit over the ⁣past ⁤couple of years, despite ⁣projections assuming prices would have come down,” Fessler said.

Charging stations are also expensive — ranging from $6,000 to $70,000, depending‍ on ​the model, Karam said.

But the high‌ cost of buses and infrastructure is not the ​only concern for​ local leaders.

Shine also⁢ raised⁢ concerns about the developing technology⁣ associated with‍ electric ‌school buses, including⁤ their range on ​a single charge, reliability in ​cold weather, and whether the state’s electrical grid can support the transition.

Giaquinto‌ noted that the range for‌ an electric bus is only about 120 miles per charge, which decreases when ​brakes are applied‍ and features like heating‌ are used in the winter. Scotia-Glenville has been investigating where buses can be charged during field trips and ⁣how the vehicles handle cold weather.

Christopher said some‌ districts are conducting ⁣studies to determine their needs, but “not all schools have had these studies done.”

Districts are⁣ expected to provide the state Education Department with information on their transition efforts this ⁤summer, according to Christopher.

FUNDING THE TRANSITION

Ruder said there are funding tools and resources available to ⁢help districts overcome challenges, but the first step is getting some electric buses into their fleets to understand how they operate.

“What we’ve seen from working with a lot of schools over the years is that by getting a few into your‌ fleet this becomes less of a new technology is scary ⁢kind of proposition and more of a building familiarity and understanding of ⁢how these buses ⁣work, where they​ work well, where they’re maybe ​not quite ready for use and making sure that you’re setting‌ yourself up‌ for success because the‌ last thing we want is for a school district to get to 2027 or beyond and feel uncomfortable with‍ the technology,” Ruder said.

He ​said ‌the state will help cover the costs ⁣to study a district’s needs to meet electrification, noting the state’s Environmental Bond⁤ Act set​ aside $500 million for NYSERDA’s⁢ School Bus Incentive program in ‌order to cover up to “100% of ‌the ‍difference in cost between a diesel ⁢bus and electric⁤ bus.”

There are also funds through utility companies like National ‌Grid, ‌as well as federal funds available ⁢to districts, ‌including $5 ​billion‌ under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School ‍Bus ⁢Program through fiscal year ⁢2026 ‍that was approved ​under the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Scotia-Glenville recently applied ⁣for a grant through the EPA that will cover around half the cost of ⁣purchasing five electric school ⁣buses. The district applied for‍ the grant​ previously ​but was unsuccessful.

Giaquinto expects to learn if the district was awarded the grant in the coming weeks, but whether the board of education moves to accept the grant and buy the buses is⁣ still to ⁤be determined. The district will also ⁤have a budget⁣ proposition⁣ on its May 21‌ ballot to borrow $1 million to cover the remaining ⁤balance for the buses contingent on the district being awarded ⁤the grant.

“It’s very complex,” Giaquinto said. “It’s coming down the road, but ‌we’re trying to phase it in.”

Purchasing‍ the‍ vehicles will also be covered by state transportation aid, though the shift will require increased​ front-end⁣ costs for districts,‍ according to ⁢Fessler.⁤ With the recently approved state budget, many districts saw‌ their foundation aid⁤ remain flat —⁢ a move that Fessler said will make it difficult for⁤ districts to move forward with the transition.

While ⁣there are different funding pools, they have varying rules⁣ and processes, making⁤ it ‍difficult to identify ‍and apply for grants, according to Fessler.

“So, it requires quite a bit of work to identify⁣ and apply for, especially for districts that do not have ‍any previous familiarity,” he said.

VOTERS’ DECISION

Despite the available funding opportunities, school districts in ‍the​ state still need to obtain voter approval ⁢before proceeding with borrowing ‍money to purchase buses or complete capital‌ projects. This requirement is a cause⁢ for concern among school officials.

Fessler said, while some‌ districts have been successful in getting propositions to purchase electric school ⁣buses approved, others⁢ in ⁤the state⁣ have seen similar proposals voted down.

Adirondack Central ⁤School District in Oneida County is just one ⁣district to strike down ‍funds, voting against approving a $30,000 EPA grant last fall.

Onteora Central School​ District ​in Ulster County ⁣also turned down an $8.5 million EPA grant⁤ to buy 21 electric buses ⁢last year in part because the school board had concerns ​over the costs of infrastructure for the buses.

“I think we’re still in a ⁢bit of a wait-and-see approach, as we follow these votes, to decide if‌ this⁢ is a ⁤prevalent enough⁢ challenge that might suggest the need for potential adjustments,” Fessler said.

Gov.⁣ Kathy Hochul’s office did not clarify what would happen if voters were to reject bus⁣ propositions or capital projects​ related to bus fleet electrification, instead noting that districts have to comply with state education laws‍ and that the state⁢ Education Department has the authority to ensure that compliance happens.

“Gas and diesel school buses are putting children’s health at risk, spewing toxic fumes and pollutants into‍ the air ‌that doctors say contribute to asthma and other negative health outcomes,”‌ the governor’s office⁣ said in ‌an emailed statement. “After New York voters approved an Environmental Bond Act that allocated $500 million for⁤ zero-emission school ⁢buses, Governor ⁢Hochul is working with communities across New York to allocate these funds and ⁢ensure⁢ they are‌ fully utilized.”

Shine said Mohonasen will ultimately comply with the state mandate, but noted he believes the deadline will be pushed back “significantly.” He suggested New York ease into the technology.

“Using it for transporting school children ‍when there are this many red flags seems imprudent,” he​ said. “It’s ⁤a laudable goal whose time has⁣ not yet come.”

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Kiara Thomas
Kiara Thomas
I uncover quirky and compelling stories. Always on the lookout for the 'why' behind the 'what'.
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3 COMMENTS

  1. Disagree – Districts need to prioritize investing in clean transportation solutions for the health of their communities and the planet, even if it comes with a high price tag.

  2. Disagree – Investing in electrifying bus fleets is essential for creating a sustainable future for our communities.

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