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Steamboat Springs gets its first electric school bus, but state and federal funding will likely result in many more across Colorado


by Allen Best

The school district in Steamboat Springs recently took possession of an electric bus, and it was a wonderful thing, reports the local newspaper, the Steamboat Pilot.

Instead of shouting to be heard, the youngsters on the yellow bus could talk more or less normally. It was quiet enough to hear the turn signal.

Too, the new bus improves the air quality, points out Aaron Viles, director of campaigns for the Electrification Coalition, an advocacy group. The comparison of emissions against the conventional diesel-burning buses is stark.

“These school buses are dirty, and they’re carrying our most precious cargo,” he says of the diesel buses. “Anything we can do to speed the transition and get those kids into safer transportation sooner rather than later will pay huge dividends for Colorado.”

Viles sees Colorado primed to pivot its 4,000 school buses from diesel to electric.

The budget proposal submitted to the Legislature by Gov. Jared Polis calls for allocation of $150 million for purchase of electric buses by school districts for transport of the state’s 300,000 school-age youngsters.

The potential grows if Colorado’s money is leveraged against the $2.5 billion in federal funds allocated for bus electrification by the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act that was passed by Congress in November. There are other federal funds available for various components related to bus electrification.

The same November law also allocated $2.5 billion for low-emission fuels such as propane and natural gas for transportation.

Neither state nor federal funds are a sure thing. The Polis budget must be approved as proposed by legislators, and there are always competing priorities. States will be competing for federal funds.

Viles suggests Colorado may be able to see additional gains by applying for grants earmarked for heavily polluted places. Colorado’s northern Front Range, from metro Denver to Fort Collins and Greeley, has failed to meet federal ozone limits.

Colorado has a broader reason for nudging along electric buses. Transportation has overtaken power plants as the largest single sector of greenhouse gas emissions. The same was true nationally in 2019 when transportation accounted for 29% of U.S. emissions, electricity 25%, and industry 25%.

Medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, including school buses along with delivery vans and trucks and tractor-trailer trucks, represent 11% of vehicles on the road but produce 29% of greenhouse gas emissions.

The 2020 Colorado EV Plan directed state agencies to work with the Regional Air Quality Council to develop strategies to support adoption of zero-emission school and transit buses by tapping the Volkswagen settlement money Colorado received. Approximately $30 million was allocated for transit buses and $21.5 million for trucks, shuttles, and school buses.

Steamboat’s new school bus and four more buses that have been ordered by the school district are a direct result of this program. Total state aid for the Steamboat school buses through a program called Alt Fuels Colorado will come to $2.4 million.

The Hayden School District has tapped the same program for a school bus expected to arrive this summer.

A 2019 state law also required Colorado’s two investor-owned utilities to devise a transportation electrification plan. The plans by Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy include support for school bus electrification.

Today just a few school districts have electric school buses: Durango, Boulder, Denver, and, most surprising of all, Kremmling.

Kremmling can get cold, though not nearly so much as the 62 degrees below zero that a local filling station registered one morning in 1979. Across Rabbit Ears Pass, Steamboat Springs similarly doesn’t get the same deep freeze as in years past. Still, it was 23 below when the new Blue Bird Vision electric bus was demonstrated in late January for an audience that included Sen. John Hickenlooper and others.

See also:

How this small Colorado mountain town got an electric school bus

Durango school bus has homework too

This, said Viles, demonstrated that electric school buses can operate in cold-weather climates.

Steamboat’s electric buses have ranges of 100 to 150 miles but will be used exclusively for in-town routes. The school district is also gaining four high-speed chargers. In addition to the one it now has and the four ordered, it plans to order two more.

Electric school buses do cost more than their diesel counterparts, about three times as much, says Viles. Lower costs of maintenance of an electric engine versus that of an internal-combustion engine and other reduced costs will allow school districts to recoup costs over the life of a bus, which is typically 10 to 15 years, he says.

A 2020 study by EY, a consultancy, found that in Colorado electric school buses would achieve cost parity with diesel buses in total operating costs by 2026. In other states, the same study showed, the cost parity will come later. Colorado has relatively low costs of electricity.

This is the very, very early stage of electrification. Nationally, fewer than 1% of school buses are electric, reported the World Resources Institute in a February 2020 posting.

But the vehicle market is fast pivoting, not just for medium- and heavy-duty buses but even more clearly in the market for passenger cars.

Three years ago, Viles remembers just one advertisement for electric vehicles during the Super Bowl. This year the EV ads came one after another.

“We’re in an EV moment right now,” he says.


Post script: After this story was posted, the Environmental Protection Agency announced rebates for school districts to assist in replacement of old diesel buses with new electric diesel, gasoline, propane, or compressed natural gas (CNG) school buses meeting current emission standards.

Four school districts in Colorado are to get awards: Adams 12 Five Star Schools, $200,000 for 10 buses; Boulder Valley School District, $100,000 for 6 buses, Cheraw School District, $20,000 for one bus; and Weld County School District 6, $200,000 for 10 buses.

Allen Best
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