New Maryland legislation requiring schools to begin purchasing or using zero emission buses beginning in 2025 is causing school administrators and transportation contractors to take a hard look at their operations.
The Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022, co-sponsored by State Senators Guy Guzzone, Katie Fry Hester, Clarence Lam, and Pam Beidle, among others, targets the threat of global warming and makes school transportation part of the state’s efforts to achieve government-related net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
A pilot program tied to the legislation allows for a utility to install interconnection equipment and provide rebates to local school systems to cover incremental costs of an electric bus fleet. In return, school systems must allow the utility to access stored electricity without additional compensation when buses are not needed to transport students.
Total rebates are limited to $50 million. A federal Environmental Protection Agency Clean School Bus Program will also provide roughly $5 billion in grant funding between fiscal 2022 and fiscal 2026 to help schools that want to make the transition to electric buses.
Montgomery County has already made a commitment to upgrade its entire bus fleet over the next decade.
For school systems like Howard County and Anne Arundel County, which don’t own buses, the requirement is a bit more complicated. In their case, the responsibility for transitioning lies with the vendors who provide transportation services under contract.
Keith Mullinix, president of the association of independent contractors who provide services for Howard County, said only two of the vehicles in the fleet of 480 contracted buses are electric.
“They are operated by MBG Enterprises and were funded with grants,” Mullinix said.
MBG also provides transportation services for Anne Arundel County Public Schools using diesel buses.
Bob Mosier, spokesperson for AACPS, confirmed that none of the buses in that school district’s contracted fleet are electric.
“It’s something our school system is definitely looking at with the contractors, trying to understand what support we can give that will help contractors who want to make the transition,” he said.
Brian Nevin, director of the HCPSS Office of Student Transportation, said the school system will make contractors aware of opportunities to transition as they arise.
“We remain interested in achieving a fleet that serves our schools that can reduce emissions,” he said. “We recently submitted a letter to the Maryland Public Service Commission in support of BGE’s efforts to assist with electric buses and the necessary infrastructure.”
Antonia Watts, chair of the Howard County Board of Education, said the Office of Student Transportation and the Office of Grants are considering what can be done to perhaps subsidize a small fleet or even start building its own fleet.
“That’s something the board has talked about in terms of owning buses, and does driving a bus for the school system also mean working for the school system,” she said. “We’re also looking at electric buses as serving maybe a small subset of the population as opposed to the entire population.”
Funding is one challenge, but infrastructure is another.
“Land is in short supply in Howard County,” Watts said, acknowledging that a shared charging facility might be a consideration.
“The police department has their own charging stations and most of their vehicles are electric, that might be something we could piggyback on,” she said. “These are just questions at this point, no clear path has been established.”
In any case, Watts said HCPSS is invested in clean technology and striving to ensure schools are more energy efficient in all operational aspects. “We’re definitely considering looking at buses as a way to reduce our carbon footprint, and we’re trying to take those next steps.”
The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program could help transportation contractors in Howard County and Anne Arundel County transition to electric buses, but there are a lot of logistics, costs and conditions to consider.
For starters, neither county is among the school districts that qualify for funding prioritization.
Moreover, private fleets cannot apply directly to the EPA for rebate funding. Instead, they are required to work with an eligible contractor, such as a bus dealer or utility, who will work to secure a rebate that the partner passes on to the fleet operator in the cost of the vehicle.
The cost of a single electric bus can range from $200,000 to $400,000.
The Climate Solutions Now Act does, however, allow exemptions if the Maryland Department of the Environment determines that no available zero-emission vehicles meet performance requirements for the county board’s use, or for boards unable to obtain federal, state or private funding to cover the incremental costs associated with contracting for the purchase or use of ZEV school buses.
“At this time, the exceptions, including the cost and range of the charge, would apply to the routes that I operate,” Mullinix said. “This is definitely something that we are all monitoring.”