Although it’s clear that an electric school bus fleet not only provides health benefits and reduced emissions from no exhaust fumes, requires less maintenance, and provides much quieter and more enjoyable riding for the children and bus drivers than do conventional school buses…the obvious question is, who can afford to convert their fleet, given the necessary infrastructure and higher cost of the vehicles?

Converting a community’s school bus fleet to electric is both climate friendly and financially forward-looking.The 29 buses in our school district in Franklin County, Maine, a fleet of roughly half diesel powered and half propane powered buses, emit about 580 tons of CO2 per year into the atmosphere. (While propane does burn cleaner than diesel, its CO2 reduction is only 15 to 20%.) If that fleet were all electric, the CO2 emitted at the power plant that produced their electricity would amount to about 400 tons (using today’s energy mix of renewables and fossil fuels), so the net savings would be 180 tons per year of CO2.

If the electricity were all from solar, the fleet would be responsible for only 55 tons of CO2. In the coming decades, as renewable energy sources continue growing and becoming cheaper, and fossil fuel prices increase, the savings in both CO2 and dollars would only grow.

Meanwhile, the maintenance and operating costs of electric buses are significantly less than conventionally powered buses – no oil changes, tune-ups, or exhaust repairs. Even the brakes last longer because of regenerative braking. In fact, the claim is that the lifetime costs are less than a conventional bus, despite the higher purchase price.

The batteries of electric school buses are so big that a fleet could feed energy back onto the electric grid if needed – for instance, if there is a surge in electrical demand at certain times of day, or in cases of community power outage. They could possibly supply the power needs of a hospital, a grocery store, municipal offices, schools, or other priority needs. With increased extreme weather events from continued atmospheric warming, such options will be essential to community resiliency.

As we come to rely more on intermittent power sources such as wind and solar, these buses would be capable of doubling as temporary energy storage, keeping the power on. In fact, they could sell some of their energy back to the grid when the demand was high. The revenue from this could have a net financial benefit to the school district.


So despite the fact that there are a lot of money saving or even generating features of electric buses, their average purchase price is higher by $100,000 to $200,000, and they require charging infrastructure and power grid connections that cost money too. Where does that capital come from in your average school district, let alone a relatively poor, rural school district like RSU9?

Well, actually, we recently learned of a fascinating new option out there that can address this question. There’s an innovative company called Highland Electric Fleets which, for a subscription fee, will undertake a turn-key conversion of a bus fleet.

When the Beverly, MA company enters into a contract (10 to 15 years), they assume all of the up-front costs. They provide all the buses, work with the electric utility to bring in the necessary power, set up the charging systems, train the drivers and maintenance personnel, and negotiate with the utilities to provide the power. Once they determine their costs, they are able to calculate a fixed annual cost for the school district that includes all of the energy and maintenance costs. In other words, the financial risk is all on them.

According to the company, the dozen or so contracts they have in place show that this arrangement has resulted in either equal or reduced annual costs for school district operating budgets. They currently are serving eight districts with 450 buses, and have contracts going for several more.

They are able to do this, in part, because as a business, they can benefit from tax incentives that are not available to schools or other public enterprises. They also can take advantage of their own expertise. Your local school transportation director is typically not an expert in building a charging network, working with a utility to get power to the bus garage, or negotiating a best rate with an energy supplier. This arrangement comes with built-in expertise that lowers costs in numerous ways.

This arrangement is in place in school districts in Beverly, MA; Baltimore, MD; Alberta, Canada, Colorado, California, Pennsylvania, and other states, both rural and urban.

So who can afford it? Since the company is assuming the risk in entering into a fixed rate, multi-year contract, that question will be answered before a school district commits. It’s an interesting possibility that seems worth an inquiry.

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is professor emeritus of physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff is your average person. Email: or Previous columns can be found at

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: