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Virginia advocates plan to jumpstart electric school bus debate next year

School Bus
Legislative proposals to put more electric school buses on the road failed this session but will likely be revived for 2021. 

Attempts to expand on Dominion Energy’s pilot program to connect electric school buses to the grid sputtered out when none of the competing bills advanced in the Virginia General Assembly, which wrapped up its annual session at the beginning of the month.

But the effort is far from dead. Both the utility and clean air advocates are figuring out how to jumpstart measures with sufficient legislative appeal next year.

In the meantime, 16 transportation directors at school districts statewide are figuring out how to incorporate their current allotment of e-buses into their fleets starting this autumn. 

They’re moving ahead even as Gov. Ralph Northam opted to keep public schools shuttered through the end of this academic year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dominion’s starter plan, announced last August, invited schools within its service territory to apply for a share of 50 electric buses. The utility selected 16 localities — from Alexandria to Waynesboro, alphabetically — based on the value of batteries to the local grid. Bus batteries will serve as energy storage to support the integration of distributed renewable energy.

Fairfax County resident Bobby Monacella is thrilled that her school district in northern Virginia, where her two daughters are enrolled, is in line for eight of those 50 electric buses. And as a climate activist who co-leads her county’s chapter of Mothers Out Front, she was hopeful lawmakers could broaden the reach of green buses in a fast, fair and far-reaching manner.

When Monacella discovered a bill designed to replace 1,000 additional dirty diesel-powered buses in Dominion’s service area with clean electric models by 2025 was too utility-centric, she and other mothers acted. 

They collaborated with Del. Mark Keam, a Fairfax County Democrat, to draft counter legislation championed by an array of conservation groups. 

Keam’s initiative, HB 1140, would have allowed school districts across the state to tap into a new block grant program to pay for the difference between a diesel and a more expensive electric bus. As well, it prioritized bus replacements in districts with high rates of air pollution and asthma.

“We wanted something that was run in the best interest of residents, not Dominion stockholders,” Monacella said about her efforts to counter a measure “that would cost ratepayers a lot of money, help with peak shaving and be a huge cash cow for Dominion.”

One daunting proposition for her group is shaping a new bill for next year that identifies a specific funding source acceptable to the finance and appropriations committees.

“We’re starting to hammer away at this,” she said. “We don’t want to see nothing happen. And we don’t want to see Dominion make out like a bandit either.”

Utility-friendly bills gain new opposition

After announcing its pilot, Dominion sought legislation to enact phase two, which would replace another 1,000 diesel buses with electric models by 2025.

Democratic Sen. Louise Lucas, who represents a section of the Hampton Roads metropolitan region, introduced several utility-friendly bills to cover that second phase. After SB 988 went nowhere, SB 1096, inserted at almost the last minute, also failed.

A separate measure was deep-sixed in the House of Delegates. House Bill 75 was sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, a Democrat who represents the Falls Church section of Fairfax County. It called for program costs, including the incremental cost of the electric buses, to be recoverable through the utility’s base rates. 

Clean Virginia executive director Brennan Gilmore criticized SB 1096 as a measure that would have raised customers’ bills and handcuffed public schools to the utility’s profit incentives.

“While earlier versions of companion legislation in the House would have balanced the goal of electrifying school transportation with ratepayer protection, SB 1096 was a clear example of monopoly overreach,” he said.

Dominion spokesperson Samantha Moore said it was unfortunate that none of the three proposals related to electric school buses was enacted into law. She evidently was not including Keam’s bill in her tally.

She emphasized that electric buses benefit customers and communities with cleaner air, cost savings for school districts and enhanced grid reliability, but didn’t offer any specifics on how the state’s largest utility would proceed.

We “are excited to get the first 50 buses on the road while we continue exploring ways to expand the program,” Moore said.

Dominion’s overarching proposal also includes a phase three, which would replace all worn out diesel buses with electric models by 2030. That goal applies only to buses in the utility’s footprint and does not mean that the entire bus fleet would be electrified within that window.

About 3,500 of the 17,000 school buses statewide are older than 10 years.

Fairfax says starting small is sensible

Meanwhile, the public schools in Fairfax County are anticipating the arrival of their first four electric buses in August and another four in December.

Francine Furby, the school district’s transportation director for six years, said charging infrastructure would be installed at the Stonecroft Transportation Facility near Westfield High School because it meets Dominion’s grid-access requirements. The electric buses would cover routes in adjacent neighborhoods.

Attorneys from the school district and the utility are talking to make sure they have a doable and understandable agreement, she said. 

“It’s new to us and it’s new to them,” said Furby, who manages a fleet of 1,625 buses. “Starting small is best because it’s a new program. We’re eager to get the buses in, put them in our operations and work out any kinks.”

Dominion selected Thomas Built Buses as the vendor. At $325,000, the price of an electric school bus is more than three times that of a diesel one.

Under the pilot, school districts pay the cost of a regular diesel bus—roughly $100,000—and Dominion Energy covers the difference. Exact costs for each party depend on bus features such as air conditioning.

Dominion’s total cost for the pilot won’t exceed $16 million, Moore said.

“This is a big project — it’s huge,” Furby said. “I definitely see the rewards and am very excited to be part of it.”

While Furby, who has 27 years in the transportation business, is enthusiastic about the environmental and health benefits of an e-bus future, she is also dealing with present-day stresses. The looming threat of COVID-19 has placed many Fairfax County families in financial jeopardy.

For this article, she was interviewed from a parking lot in Herndon where the school district’s food service staffers were delivering free meals to students who qualified. Diesel buses are at-the-ready to supplement vans and jointly cover 13 different routes in the district.

“We are supporting the food and nutrition staff,” she said. “We’re trying to reach families in need.” 

Monacella figures having the first round of electric school buses on the ground this fall will help legislators eventually find an equitable way forward. 

“Maybe I’m just a Pollyanna,” she said, “but I  want it to happen as soon as possible because of climate change.”

This article was originally published on Energy News Network and was republished with permission.