Editor’s Note: This article was updated in June 2022 to present key findings from WRI’s new dataset tracking electric school bus adoption in the United States. To the best of our knowledge, these statistics are up to date as of March 31, 2022. Another update will be available in late summer 2022. Contact email@example.com for previous versions of this article.
Electric school bus adoption continues to expand in the United States.
School districts and fleet operators have now committed 12,275 electric school buses in 38 states. That’s more than 10,000 electric school buses since the release of WRI’s January 2022 dataset, and almost a 10-fold increase since WRI began tracking electric school bus adoption in August 2021. The vast majority of these buses come from a contract announced at the end of December between bus dealer Midwest Transit Equipment and SEA Electric, a manufacturer of commercial electric vehicles. This agreement promises to convert 10,000 school buses to electric over the next five years.
This significant rise in electric school bus commitments is a testament to tireless advocacy work at the local, state and federal levels, bolstered by more funding opportunities across the country.
The sharp increase in 2021 Q4 is due to a 10,000-bus commitment by bus dealer Midwest Transit Equipment and SEA Electric, an electric vehicle manufacturer.
Why Are Electric School Buses Important?
More than 20 million children ride the bus to school, and 92-95% of these school buses run on diesel. Diesel exhaust pollution, a known carcinogen, has proven links to serious physical health issues as well as cognitive development impacts. Evidence increasingly suggests that children are especially susceptible to these impacts, and daily exposure contributes to asthma and respiratory diseases.
Students from low-income communities are particularly exposed to the dangers of diesel exhaust pollution: 60% of students from low-income families ride the bus to school, compared to 45% of students from families with higher incomes. Children of color are more likely to suffer from asthma, due in part to historically racist lending, transit, housing and zoning policies that concentrated Black and Brown communities closer to highways and other sources of vehicle-based air pollution. In addition, children with disabilities often ride longer on buses. Electrifying the entire fleet of school buses can help address these health concerns and inequalities. Electric school buses have no tailpipe emissions, eliminating harmful pollutants that contribute to respiratory disease, heart disease, cancer and physical problems – and which can harm students’ cognitive development. In fact, reducing students’ exposure to air pollution from school buses can have positive and significant effects on student test scores – in some cases, on par with increased teacher experience levels.
Electric school buses also have significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than diesel or propane-powered school buses. Plus, unlike other fuels, the use of electric buses will continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as more renewable energy is introduced. School bus electrification also offers resiliency support to the electric grid and can support jobs in a growing industry.
WRI has been tracking electric school bus adoption across the United States and recently released an update covering the first quarter of 2022. Here are key findings and trends from this new data.
The United States Has More Than 12,000 Committed Electric School Buses
As of March 2022, we identified a total of 12,275 “committed” electric school buses across the U.S. That’s roughly the size of the entire school bus fleet of North Carolina, and is 6 times higher than our count from January 2022. We also identified 60 new districts that have committed to electric school buses, bringing the total to 415. This is a 60% increase in the number of districts from our first count in the summer of 2021.
We consider an electric school bus “committed” when a school district, bus dealer, or fleet operator has been awarded funding to purchase it, or has made a formal agreement for a purchase with a manufacturer. Committed buses also include those that have been delivered to the school district or fleet operator and those in operation.
We now have data on four sub-phases of the electric school bus adoption process that fit under the umbrella term “commitment:” “awarded,” “ordered,” “delivered” and “in operation.” While we counted 12,275 committed electric school buses, only about 5% are currently delivered or operational.
Our research shows that the average amount of time that passes between the awarding of funds to the delivery of the electric school bus is around 16 months. This range varies from less than three months to more than three years, but the amount of time has generally gotten shorter since the first electric school bus hit the roads in 2014. Delivery delays have been exacerbated by supply chain issues during the COVID-19 pandemic.
ESBs Are Now Committed in 38 States; California Leads
There are 38 states with committed ESBs, including two new states since January 2022: Mississippi and Montana. (Our geographic analysis excludes the 10,000 electric school buses committed by SEA Electric and Midwest Transit Equipment, since their locations have yet to be announced.)
Most electric school buses belong to districts or entities on the coasts in suburban areas. California still leads in electric school bus adoption, and now has more than 1,000 committed electric buses across the state. This is 3 times more than Maryland, which has the next-highest number of committed electric school buses. See the other states in the top 10 list below. Following California, the biggest additions since December 2021 came in Illinois and Connecticut, which gained 81 and 43 electric school bus commitments respectively, largely due to funds from the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust.
In fact, aside from the 10,000-bus repower contract, the VW Settlement is the source that has funded the largest number of electric school buses to date. Since the first award in 2018, 26 out of 38 states have used VW Settlement funds toward the purchase of electric school buses. The next four largest funding sources are all from California; the state’s robust incentive programs are part of why 70% of all delivered and operational electric school buses can be found there.
The Number of Large Electric School Bus Commitments Is Growing
The contract between Midwest Transit Equipment and SEA Electric to repower 10,000 ESBs accounts for most of the new electric school bus commitments from December 2021 to March 2022. While this is by far the largest single-contract commitment to date, many other fleet operators have committed to multiple electric school buses. Forty-two school districts and private fleet operators now have 10 or more committed electric school buses, compared to 28 school districts in January 2022. Around 25% of all entities with electric school buses have committed to five or more. These numbers could suggest growing trust in electric school bus technology and market conditions, as well as wider funding availability.
Larger Buses Dominate Electric School Bus Sales
We identified 10 different electric school bus manufacturers, with three major players: Thomas Built Buses, Blue Bird, and Lion Electric. While Thomas has the highest number of committed electric school buses, Blue Bird currently leads in the number of buses that have been delivered or are in operation.
School buses are generally classified into four categories based on size and construction: the smaller types A and B, which carry between 10 and 30 passengers, and the larger types C and D, which carry between 50 and 90 students. The top three manufacturers all offer Type C electric models, which is the most common bus type in technicians’ fleets, according to a 2021 maintenance survey conducted by School Bus Fleet Magazine. This aligns with our findings on ESB types; 70% of committed electric school buses are Type C, while 19% are the bigger Type D. This may indicate confidence in electric school buses to transport large numbers of students.
Is Electric School Bus Adoption Happening Equitably?
As shown in the graph above, school districts with electric school buses are fairly evenly spread among low-income quartiles, but the pattern differs when you look at the distribution of individual electric school buses. Most are in the highest-income quartile, but the lowest two quartiles follow close behind.
Electric bus adoption is occurring more equitably when looking at how the vehicles are distributed among communities of color. Almost 80% of electric school buses are located in school districts with a high population of non-white and/or Hispanic people (defined as “Minority” in the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJScreen data). The same trend can be seen in the number of school districts with electric school buses, with most belonging to the top quartile as well. This is a promising sign that electric school buses are going to historically underserved school districts. Stakeholders, including policymakers, utilities, nonprofit organizations, and teams charged with program design and implementation, should commit to ensuring this trend continues.
As seen in the above chart, electric school buses have mostly been committed by school districts with the highest levels of PM2.5 air pollution, indicating that electric buses are going to communities that would benefit the most from the air quality benefits of electrification. The trend differs slightly with ozone pollution; 25% of buses are in areas with the lowest levels of ozone, compared to 3% of buses that are in areas with the lowest levels of PM2.5. We focused on these two pollutants because of their close linkage to diesel exhaust and the availability of data.
Overall, committed electric school buses are largely concentrated in historically underserved communities, but more efforts could be focused on ensuring electric school buses are accessible to more low-income communities, in particular. Since an electric bus and associated charging infrastructure currently cost more than a diesel bus upfront, funding incentives are crucial for low-income districts to be able to transition to electric.
However, our analysis only represents a snapshot in time, and the metrics we have chosen are by no means comprehensive. WRI will be conducting more in-depth research on the equity of electric school bus adoption and continuing to work alongside partners to ensure that underserved communities remain front-and-center in the transition.
What’s Next To Scale Up Electric School Bus Adoption?
Our most recent update to WRI’s Electric School Bus Adoption dataset saw a tremendous jump in the number of committed buses, with the size of districts’ commitments also increasing. Twenty-three electric school buses were awarded in 2022 through American Rescue Plan funding, and the EPA is now accepting applications for funding through the Clean School Bus Program. This new program, which will award at least $500 million per year exclusively for electric school buses, will prioritize high-need or low-income, rural, or tribal schools.
If progress toward an all-electric school bus fleet is to continue, policymakers at the federal and state levels, including state utility regulators, need to increase funding opportunities and ensure they are accessible to communities that would benefit most from school bus electrification.
Leah Lazer is a Research Associate with the Electric School Bus Initiative at World Resources Institute and NUMO, the New Urban Mobility Alliance, hosted by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Lydia Freehafer is a Research Assistant for NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance, hosted by WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.
Data visualizations by Rosie Ettenheim