Electric school buses would be good for Virginia, but it has to be done right

Electric Bluebird school bus. Photo by University Railroad via Wikimedia Commons

Transportation electrification is the focus of several bills moving through the General Assembly this winter. Environmental advocates support legislation providing rebates for purchases of electric vehicles and making EVs more readily available, both of which will help develop a market for electric cars. But buses present an even stronger case for electrification because they serve more people of all income levels, and are mostly diesel now. Switching to electric buses, especially school buses, would save money on fuel and improve air quality, especially for children riding them. 

Yet the only electric school bus bill that would have much immediate impact is so deeply flawed and counterproductive that the environmental community is largely united in opposition. SB1380 has passed the Senate and reached the House floor, where it is now encountering headwinds. That opposition contrasts with the broad support offered for HB2118 (Keam), now in Senate Finance, which establishes a public funding mechanism for electric school buses, but unfortunately so far no funds have been appropriated.

I asked Gary Greenwood, the EV Issues Chair for the Sierra Club’s legislative committee, to explain the problems with SB1380 and what amendments it would need to have before Sierra Club could support it. Below is Gary’s response.  

Last week, the House Labor and Commerce committee approved a bill that allows Dominion to deploy an unproven technology, electric school bus batteries used to support the electric grid, and collect the costs from ratepayers.  The bill, SB1380 (Lucas), specifies that these school buses connected to the grid are in the public interest, and therefore ratepayers must pay for them, including the guaranteed profit for the utility. Also of concern is that the bill does not ensure that the buses will always be available when the schools need them for transporting kids.

While vehicle-to-grid technology is not new, it has never been deployed at this scale to support a utility’s electric grid.  SB1380 will allow Dominion to charge ratepayers hundreds of millions of dollars for this unproven technology, without a thorough SCC evaluation.

Yes, the environmental community wants to reduce and ultimately eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.  And switching from diesel school buses zero-emission electric school buses is an important part of this effort.  We also know that electric school buses will be much healthier for the children that ride them.  “Do it for the kids” is a great sentiment, but a poor excuse to declare unproven technology in the public interest.  Note that Mothers Out Front, a champion of electric school buses in Virginia, also spoke against this bill.

The environmental community supports battery storage as a key part of the transition to renewable energy, and adding battery storage to the grid is needed for utilities to meet VCEA’s storage targets of 250MW by 2025 and 1200MW by 2030.  However, the vehicle-to-grid technology that enables electric buses to support the electrical grid has not been implemented at this scale.  Dominion has begun a pilot program, but it is in its infancy.  

We don’t believe that the General Assembly should declare the deployment of this technology in the public interest.  Rather, an analysis evaluating the benefits and reliability of using school bus batteries to support the grid should be presented in an SCC filing, comparing the costs of bus batteries to dedicated batteries for grid support.

We do need to convert our school bus fleets to electric buses. SB1380 could move us in the right direction if it is amended to guarantee that the buses are always available for transporting students, and to allow for unfettered SCC oversight of costs.

14 thoughts on “Electric school buses would be good for Virginia, but it has to be done right

  1. Hi Ivy, Is Gary Greenwood not aware of Delegate Keam’s SB2118? There is another Electric School Bus bill going through the General Assembly that puts a priority on helping areas with high asthma rates and low air quality—and prioritizes our kids’ wellbeing rather than Dominion’s shareholders. It’s the right way to transition our fleets. Why no mention of this bill? It’s in the Senate Finance and Appropriations subcommittee. It would be great for people to log in and post comments in support!

    • Bobby, great question. The only problem with Keam’s bill is that it lacks funding. So for right now, it creates a good structure for funding school bus conversions but doesn’t have the money to accomplish it. I will amend the post to include mention of SB2118, since it is otherwise a promising approach if public funding is made available.

  2. Thanks so much Ivy! Yes, the lack of funding is a bummer. But the amended version of the bill includes language that the state will augment any federal or private funding that comes through, so hopefully the state will kick in its fair share if others step up to help too. I think having a program established is a great first step, so that once funding comes in school districts won’t have to figure out the best way to make the most of it- the state will help them through the process.

  3. Can you be more specific on what’s unproven?

    I understand attacking Dominion’s guaranteed rate of return on these projects, but it seems you’re attacking the technology instead. We have two buses in our community, and have not been held back from using them when we need them.

    The pilot is working. The technology has been here. We just need government/ratepayer support to scale, and my kids just assume not breathe diesel emissions while we wait. They age too…. hopefully with a lot cleaner energy infrastructure than I had in the 80’s.

    • John,

      Good question. We understand that the electric school buses work, and as environmentalists we certainly support them.

      However, I don’t believe that Dominion’s use of the school buses as battery storage for the grid is proven. And we want to make sure that the buses will be available for transporting students when needed. That’s why we support amendments to make sure the buses are available for transporting students, and also for SCC to have oversight of the costs and impact to rates.

  4. Unless the school busses are charge by renewable energy it is a shell game as the charging of these units will be from Brown power

    • Hi Ed, A US PIRG study showed that in VA, even if you buy power from the utility it’s still 67% cleaner than if you use diesel fuel. Obviously using renewable energy is the end goal- the VCEA set a goal of 100% clean energy by 2045 in Dominion territory and 2050 in Appalachian Power territory. The grid gets cleaner every year, and hopefully with grassroots pressure, we can push for a full transition sooner than those VCEA goals, which we all know are not nearly soon enough.

      • Bobby
        You are correct those goals are not soon enough in my personal opinion the effects of climate change as we see many issues will not hold back for that long people must understand the human race is in endangered species

  5. Hi Ivy, you probably have a filter for seriously naive questions, but I am curious: how it is that Dominion collects our money, buys an asset, such as the batteries discussed here, and retains ownership. I assume having the asset on their books allows them to claim a higher guaranteed ROI, depreciation etc., but I would think that if these assets were ours, Dominion would be limited to generating and distributing the power to charge,

    • Dennis,

      We aren’t quite sure either. Which is why we are asking SCC to have oversight into the costs of this program and the impact to ratepayers.

  6. Hi Ivy- This technology is proven. Check out https://electrek.co December 14, 2020 article about the first successful deployment of backfeeding the grid from Electric School Buses in the state of New York of a V2G pilot, in which electricity flows from electric school buses back to the grid when parked. The fleet of five LionC school buses in White Plains are operated by National Express, which pays for the energy costs during the school year. Backfeeding the grid would most likely be after-hours (nights and weekends) when the bus batteries are fully charged. Therefore the electric school buses would always be available in the morning for their routes.

    • Hi Dudley,

      As environmentalists we strongly support electric buses, and we understand the role of batteries for supporting renewable electricity generation.

      As rate-payers, we rely on the oversight by the State Corporation Commission to insure all of Dominion Virginia’s customers are paying a fair price for our electricity and the grid that supports it. Dominion said in their testimony that all of Virginia’s rate payers will each be paying $12/year for this bus project. If the legislature declares this project to be in the ‘Public Interest’, the SCC’s ability to protect rate payers is significantly limited.

      The amendments to this bill will still allow Dominion to purchase and deploy electric school buses to transport students and support the grid, and allow the SCC to protect the interests of the rate-payers.

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