How School Districts Can Use Unprecedented Federal Funding to Transition to Electric Buses

Amid economic concerns like rising gas prices and inflation impacting American communities and resources, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is bringing a bright spot to school districts across the country. The agency recently announced a new $5 billion fund, available immediately, to purchase clean school bus fleets and lessen reliance on diesel fuel. The fund is part of the EPA’s 2022 Clean School Bus Program, funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to replace existing school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models. By tapping into this funding, districts can replace old buses, reduce maintenance costs, improve air quality and commit to sustainability goals.

Yet, developing a fleet of EV school buses comes with unique challenges that require a larger, more strategic plan around energy management and sustainable upgrades. Modesto City Schools worked with energy and sustainability partner Schneider Electric to design a comprehensive approach to undertake the necessary improvements to implement a cleaner bus fleet.

Before the first students hop aboard their new electric ride spaces4learning TRANSPORTATION to school, districts must prepare their electrical infrastructure for the increased load, choose and position a mix of charging stations, and plan routes that optimize the buses’ driving ranges. Districts must also consider how to power the clean vehicles. For example, by incorporating onsite renewable energy, such as solar, and combining it with battery storage, schools can minimize utility costs and keep the fleet’s footprint low carbon from start to finish.

To capitalize on the unprecedented federal funding to go electric, Modesto City Schools has made the nation's single largest Blue Bird electric school bus order to date. And in tandem with this historic fleet transition, the district has embarked on a much larger energy and sustainability plan.

Consider Bus Fleets as Part of a Larger Energy Management and Sustainability Plan

Modesto City Schools is the 25th-largest district in California, serving approximately 30,000 students across 34 schools. With an overarching strategic plan to reduce environmental pollutants for the community, shift from a reliance on diesel fuel and conserve energy, the district chose a switch to clean school buses as an impactful first project to address its sustainability objectives.

As part of a comprehensive infrastructure project, the district purchased 30 new electric buses. But the buses alone were only a single step in the process. The supporting infrastructure—including the components and software to generate, store and balance electricity in the charging infrastructure—and other energy-saving, sustainable campus features were scoped into the modernization project. Overall, the project will install about 800 kWp of solar canopies, the charging infrastructure, and 30 EV charging stations, as well as help bring enhanced STEAM learning programs to the district, including six state-of-the-art Sustainable Outdoor Learning Environments (SOLEs).

This won’t all happen in one fell swoop. Instead, it takes a multi-phased approach that factors in securing leadership buy-in and ensures continuity within the school district while updates are being made. For Modesto City Schools, this means that the first install will be the charging infrastructure and solar canopies at the bus yard by the end of summer. Following that, construction of the six SOLEs will occur on campuses during the school year, and solar carports will be added to Davis High School next summer. The entire project will be completed at an accelerated pace to optimize long-term environmental and financial benefits.

This ambitious project is set to improve the health, environment and learning experience of students, staff and community. The overall project will save 1,898,642 kWh in energy consumption and remove 402 tons of carbon emissions from the environment. The impact is the equivalent of removing 86 cars from the road or planting 16,080 trees. The bus fleet alone will save $250,000+ in fuel costs and overall maintenance, creating room in the budget for more enriching student activities. Each bus can run up to 120 miles on a single charge.

Modesto’s students will be among the first in the nation to be transported to school using clean energy vehicles, and these sustainable upgrades will serve the students of this community for years to come.

Innovative Funding Will Expand the Possibilities for Energy Infrastructure Modernization

School sustainability projects should utilize all available innovative funding resources, such as the new fund announced by the EPA. Modesto City Schools utilized California’s Hybrid and Zero-Emission Truck and Bus Voucher Incentive Project (HVIP) to finance a portion of the overall cost of the bus purchase. In addition to HVIP, the district is financing its larger sustainability program by leveraging energy and operational savings from the project via an Energy Savings Performance Contracting (ESPC), as well as federal stimulus funds and local grants.

This comprehensive approach to facility improvements and fleet electrification will allow Modesto City Schools to double down on stimulus-funded upgrades. Other school districts can also follow this model to make improvements beyond the Clean School Bus stimulus scope, reducing energy and operational costs district-wide by 20–30% and reinvesting those savings to improve the entire student experience in school facilities.

This is just the first step for Modesto City Schools on their sustainability journey. Now is the time for all of America’s schools to consider moving toward electric vehicles and making commitments that will improve our environment for students and the community.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Gilbert Rosas is Director II, Sustainability & Adaptation, at Modesto City Schools. He serves on the World Resource Institute’s Electric School Bus Advisory Council. His passions are seeking environmental justice for disadvantaged communities through electric school bus transition and by empowering students through Sustainability Initiatives and demonstrating Green Career choices. Rosas has gained national attention with two of the fastest Electric School Bus deployments in California’s history, at Stockton Unified School District and Modesto City Schools.