The Biden administration is awarding grants to school districts around the country, totaling about $1 billion, to purchase about 2500 electric school buses. The administration touts electrifying school buses as an important step for reducing emissions and pollution, but the vehicles can also provide much needed grid security to underserved communities in the face of natural disasters.
Eilyan Bitar, professor of electrical and computing engineering at Cornell University, researches how to sustainably integrate renewable energy sources into the grid. Bitar says electric school buses can be a “network of mobile batteries” to make the grid cleaner and more reliable.
“In addition to reducing the exposure of student riders to harmful emissions, electric school buses have the potential to improve the energy resilience of historically underserved communities to electricity disruptions and prolonged blackouts.
“For example, when the Texas winter freeze of 2021 left millions without power, households in majority-minority neighborhoods were among the first to lose power. When equipped with bidirectional charging technologies, the massive batteries onboard the electric school buses can provide backup power when a community is threatened with power outages. School buses are particularly well-suited to provide these services as they are only in use for roughly five hours per day on school days, and typically not in use during weekends and school holidays.
“There is an opportunity to significantly reduce the total cost of ownership for electric school bus fleets by harnessing the aggregate energy storage capacity in their batteries to provide energy and reliability services to the wholesale electricity market—without impacting their utilization for transportation services.
“The ability to align the flexible charging patterns of electric school buses with the intermittent electricity supply patterns of wind and solar resources also has the potential to eliminate over 8 million tons of carbon dioxide from the transportation sector annually.
“As we continue to electrify our public transportation sector, we need to think of our electrified fleets as more than just a form of transportation, but as a network of mobile batteries that can support a cleaner and more reliable grid.”
Arthur Wheaton is a transportation industries expert and director of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Wheaton says upfront costs for electric school buses can be daunting, but it’s a smart investment for kids and the environment — with a strong return on investment.
“Electric buses are a great idea for school systems. They typically have a fixed place to park overnight for recharging. The current fleet is very dirty with mostly diesel vehicles that belch out bad fumes and particulate while parked directly in front of the schools. The upfront costs on purchasing electric vehicles can be daunting even though the return on investment pays for itself over many years with no expensive diesel fuel and much less maintenance required. It is good for the schools, good for the kids, good for the environment and a smart investment to meet some of our climate goals.
“Unfortunately, it will take many years to build 2500 electric school buses but each one it replaces is a good start.”