Hoopla Over Phoenix School District’s New Electric Bus Leaves Sticker Shock Out


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State Senator Rebecca Rios touted the benefits of electric school buses at an event last week.


Last week, to celebrate the acquisition of an electric school bus by a local school district, a special event called “Let’s Get Rolling” was held where children and adults were able to experience the bus and meet the promoters of the bus. new EV technology.

The local media vanished, dutifully covering the event.

But in all the excitement, the hosts of the event and the media coverage of the bus got various facts wrong and left out an important feature of the high-tech vehicle: its exorbitant cost.

Here’s what you haven’t found out if you’ve attended the event or seen the recent media coverage of the bus:

* The price of the bus was $ 429,000, nearly four times the cost of a full-size, conventional-fuel school bus.

* The organizers of the July 15 “Let Get Rolling” event claimed that the lower fuel and maintenance costs of such a vehicle would save a school district $ 115,000 over the life of the vehicle . But a 2019 report literally states the opposite: that electric school buses, for now, in fact Cost $ 115,000 more than a new diesel bus in their lifetime.

* The state determined three years ago that due to the high cost of electric school buses and the fact that newer diesel engines burn relatively well, replacing old school buses with electric-only buses would actually be worse for the city. ‘air.

* The 84-passenger Blue Bird electric bus acquired by the Cartwright Primary School District with state and federal assistance is not the state’s first electric school bus, as the district reported and two television news channels. This honor goes to a smaller bus acquired by the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) in January 2020.

None of this means that electric school buses do not have a bright future. An electric bus does not emit pollutants, which means that children standing near it will not breathe in the exhaust fumes which are particularly prevalent in older diesel buses. Electric buses also cost less to maintain and save money on fuel. They are calm. But they’re not yet ready for mass adoption by low-income school districts, even with grants. The news media and bus boosters have done a poor job of explaining the problem to the public over the past few weeks.


Let’s Get Rolling event flyer

AZFamily / KPHO (channels 3 and 5), KTAR-FM radio (92.3 FM) and Fox-10 News covered the Cartwright bus unveiling in early July, reporting that it was not easy to get the buses – it took years to apply for federal grants, ask for money for school obligations, and find storage and billing options. None of the three mentioned the key factor of cost. A spokesperson for the bus event confirmed Phoenix New Times that the organizers had no recent questions from reporters on the cost.

The Cartwright and PUHSD buses were acquired with the help of the Hispanic national environmentalist group Chispa, which launched its Clean Buses for Healthy Niños campaign in 2018 to take advantage of the cash distributed as part of the Volkswagen diesel fraud settlement of 10 billions of dollars.

A July 2019 article in the Republic of Arizona on the work of Chispa and the students at South Mountain High School to acquire an electric school bus mentioned something about the cost of vehicles, but did not quite understand: “Although an electric school bus can save money. Long-term money with less fuel and maintenance costs than a diesel bus, it’s the initial sticker price that deters districts. An electric school bus could cost twice as much as a diesel school bus. ”

In fact, the price of a full-size electric school bus is typically about three times the cost of a comparable diesel school bus, said Albert Burleigh, director of electric vehicle sales for Blue Bird. New times.

An average diesel school bus costs about $ 110,000. Burleigh said different factors would influence the price of an electric school bus in Arizona, but it would likely cost between $ 300,000 and $ 350,000.

Spokeswoman for the event’s organizers, Ashely Santa Cruz of Apex Strategic Consulting, confirmed the price of Cartwright’s bus, but was unsure why it was more expensive than Blue Bird’s estimate.

The triple cost estimate is mentioned in an August 2019 AZFamily / KPHO article on the South Mountain High School student’s electric bus acquisition effort, but this article follows on from the Cost estimate with more positive news: Electric bus has a projected savings of $ 115,000 over its lifetime, saving about 80% on fuel and 80% on maintenance.

It is not clear from the article where AZFamily obtained the figure of $ 115,000 in savings. Burleigh said it wasn’t from him. But the press release for the “Let’s Get Rolling” event used it: “One electric bus will save the city $ 115,000 over its lifespan in fuel and maintenance. When asked where the host groups got the statistic, Santa Cruz recalled the AZFamily article from 2019.

In fact, a July 2019 report by Washington DC-based Atlas Public Policy think tank indicates the exact opposite. Using research created for the state government of California, the Atlas report states that by 2030, using only a state grant, “a TCO electric school bus [total cost of ownership] is expected to be $ 115,000 more than diesel alternatives. ”

This is not the case with electric city buses, which “in some cases” can recover their higher initial cost. But because electric school buses cost three times as much as typical school buses and because they have lower annual mileage than public transit buses, their total cost of ownership “is less favorable,” the report said.

The report notes that “reducing children’s exposure to harmful pollutants is a key benefit of this technology,” which is why the high school track team and other students would like to see the school bus fleets. switch to electric. The good news is that the rapid improvement in technology and higher production volume should lower costs over time.

Much of the cost is the batteries for the buses, Burleigh said. “It’s the biggest obstacle, not the range or the performance.”

But he acknowledged that for school districts, cost is the biggest barrier. Blue Bird sold 250 electric buses last year – a small percentage of its total production of 10,000 school buses, but the venerable American school bus company does not consider electric vehicles an experiment. The company briefly produced a line of electric school buses in 1994, selling 36, but produced a much more modern version since 2018, Burleigh said.

“The bus that we are building today is very viable,” he said. “It has all the health benefits. Zero pollution. It’s quiet.”

About half of the buses Blue Bird currently produces are diesel, while most of the rest run on gasoline, propane or natural gas. But while costs will drop by 2030, Burleigh predicted, almost all school buses built by Blue Bird would likely be electric.

Even if that happens, it will still be many years before the nation’s entire school bus fleet becomes electric. But the results for air and public health could be dramatic. If the country’s 480,000 school buses were electric, it would save 5.3 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year and $ 3 billion a year in fuel costs, according to a 2018 study commissioned by Environment America. Locally, school buses contribute to air pollution in the valley, which has one of the worst tunes in the country, so switching to electricity, in theory, could help the region meet federal standards. An electric school bus also has the immediate benefit of not spitting diesel fumes into the lungs of neighboring school children.

For now, however, the harsh reality of the higher cost of electric school buses cannot be dismissed. Three years ago, as Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services reported for The Associated Press, Governor Doug Ducey – on the advice of his aides – chose not to go electric when creating ‘a plan to subsidize the replacement of the state’s old diesel school buses, as this has meant more pollution.

The 2018 plan calls for more than 280 buses with $ 38 million in settlement money from VW, which scammed the public with scam software that made its cars look less polluting than they were. Low-income school districts and the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind were given the opportunity to replace buses over 15 years old free of charge. Part of the funds for electric school buses acquired by PUHSD and Cartwright Primary came from VW’s settlement plan. But Ducey’s office did the math and determined that buying three times as many new diesel buses as all-electric buses for the same price would result in a 36% reduction in overall air pollution, says Fischer’s article.

In other words, on a budget, buying a bunch of new diesel school buses is, for now, always better than buying a few electric ones, as the latter option would leave too many old, heavily polluting vehicles. .

Electric school buses could well be the future in Arizona and everywhere else. But they cannot achieve their promised benefits until the cost drops.

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