The Biden administration continues to push electric buses despite problems showing up around the country as range, reliability and expenses are turning out to be much different than advertised idling many of them.
EV buses cost multiple times more than their diesel counterparts, and their performance is marred by expensive and frequent repairs, charging equipment costs and much lower range than existing buses.
Cities and school districts are left holding the bag, even as the Biden administration uses celebrity spokespeople like Vice President Kamala Harris and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to pitch Americans on them.
Between the federal government, states and municipalities, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent adding electric buses to transit fleets across the United States to supposedly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. However, these electric buses are sitting unused as they are broken-down and either cannot be fixed, are too expensive to fix, or have been scrapped altogether.
Officials in Asheville, North Carolina, recently expressed frustration that three of the five e-buses the city purchased for millions in 2018 are now sitting idle due to a combination of software issues, mechanical problems and an inability to obtain replacement parts. The Denver Gazette reported that two of the four e-buses the Mountain Metropolitan Transit in Colorado Springs acquired in 2021 are not running. They cost $1.2 million each, mostly paid for by government grants. A major part of the problem is the manufacturer of the buses, the Biden Administration- backed Proterra, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August. Founded in 2004, the company became the largest e-bus company in the United States, representing nearly 40 percent of the market prior to filing for bankruptcy. Since the bankruptcy filing, it has been impossible to get parts. Department of Energy Secretary Granholm was one of their celebrity shareholders, while Vice President Harris was an outspoken advocate for EV school buses.
However, cities had problems with the company’s buses long before then. In 2020, The Philadelphia Tribune reported SEPTA’s entire $24 million fleet of 25 buses manufactured by Proterra had been pulled out of commission–the third-largest fleet of all-electric buses in the United States at the time. In September 2021, the Daily Bulletin out of California reported that “As of August, Foothill Transit, based in West Covina and serving the San Gabriel Valley, parts of Los Angeles and Pomona Valley, had 13 idled battery-electric buses out of 32 in its fleet. At one point, the agency indicated up to 67% of its electric buses were not operating during 2019 and 2020.”
Other cities were also struggling with idled electric bus fleets. In November 2022, the entire fleet of Proterra electric buses in Louisville had not operated in two years for which the city had paid $9 million. In Austin, Texas, the city’s Capital Metro entered into a $46 million deal with Proterra in 2020 for the company to build 40 e-buses. Capital Metro has six of them in operation while they await another 17 that have been built but are sitting in Proterra’s South Carolina factory because chargers for them are not yet available. Broward County, Florida, purchased 42 e-buses from Proterra for $54 million, and the first batch operated for an average of 600 miles before breaking down, while the second batch averaged 1,800. For comparison, the county’s much less expensive diesel buses average 4,500 miles between failures.
The Fiasco Goes On
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Clean School Bus Program is spending $5 billion over five years, 2022 to 2026, underwriting electric buses for schools that could not afford them otherwise. The funding requires low income and rural school districts, school districts in areas most affected by air pollution, and other environmental justice factors to be prioritized in allotting the funds. Priority districts are eligible for funding up to the full cost of 25 buses and the necessary chargers. So far, the EPA has spent $1.84 billion from the fund, on 5,103 electric buses. That averages out to more than $360,000 per bus—3 to 6 times more than diesel buses that cost between $65,000 and $100,000 each.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer wants Michigan to build the infrastructure for 2 million electric vehicles by 2030. Her plans to overhaul the state’s 8,800-vehicle fleet, however, will not be complete until 2040—a decade later. Portions of Michigan’s 17,000 school buses will transition to electric ahead of the state government fleet. Michigan is getting $125 million from EPA to help school districts buy electric school buses. That means Michigan’s $125 million will buy less than 350 electric buses. To replace all 17,000 school buses in the state, it would take more than $6 billion, leaving school districts with expensive and frequent repairs.
Ann Arbor Public Schools was an early adopter of the electric school bus. Officials have admitted that the onboarding of just four electric school buses has been a struggle due to cost, downtime and performance issues. The e-buses cost five times what a regular bus would cost, while the charging infrastructure was four times more expensive than estimated. Besides the cost of the e-bus, there is another $1,200 to $12,000 or more for a basic EV charger and infrastructure-related costs.
The EPA identified 297 “priority districts” out of Michigan’s over 800 traditional and charter districts for the grant program, primarily in rural and low-income areas. Non-priority districts are also able to apply for funding, but would only receive $250,000 per bus and $13,000 per charger, which would make the school district’s cost of a new electric bus comparable to the price of a diesel bus.
The Michigan school districts have concerns about battery capacity, charging infrastructure, the state’s brutal winters and ease of maintenance. Different models of electric school buses have a range of 70 to 200 miles on a full battery, while diesel buses can go over 500 miles on a full tank. Unlike diesel-powered vehicles, the range for electric buses drops in the winter. Batteries reduce their range in winter because some of their energy is used to heat up the cabin, a necessity where harsh winters are the norm. The range drops quite a bit when it is very cold so in a rural area one needs to be cautious when traveling long distances characteristic of rural areas. Charging several times a day can help deal with range matters but if the buses need to go to events where there are no charges, the situation becomes difficult and additional costs are required for reliable backup.
The Biden administration is pushing electric buses on cities and schools to further its climate agenda. However, there are problems with the program including initial cost of the e-buses, ability to get parts, and bankruptcy from one of the major manufacturers and suppliers, resulting in many e-buses sitting idle. The school bus program also has issues including cost of the e-bus, which can be 3 to 6 times more than a diesel bus; range, which is just 15 to 40 percent of a diesel bus’s range; availability of charging stations; and weather degrading battery capacity, thereby reducing range. Nevertheless, Biden’s EPA is handing out money and eligible school districts are accepting the funds and purchasing e-buses.