Finally time? N.J. uses 15,000 diesel-powered buses a day — now, available federal funding could usher in electric era

We’ll lead with the money quote, courtesy of Doug O’Malley, the director of the Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center. 

“Getting to school shouldn’t include a daily dose of toxic pollution,” he said. 

Hard to argue with that. And O’Malley is just getting started.

“Transitioning to all-electric buses would first and foremost ensure our children have a clean and healthy ride to school,” he said. “But, beyond that, it also provides an excellent opportunity to make dramatic improvements to our state’s electric grid, providing significant new benefits for communities.”

Like everything else having to do with the push toward green energy, the ultimate outcome sounds great. Getting there, however, is not easy.

That may be changing.

Last week, billions of federal dollars started to become available for school districts across the country to transition to clean, electric school buses. Using funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean School Bus Program will provide $5 billion over the next five years (fiscal years 2022-2026) to replace existing school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models. 

Doug O’Malley, the director of the Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center.

The EPA is offering $500 million through the 2022 Clean School Bus Rebates for zero-emission and low-emission school bus rebates as the first funding opportunity.

The Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center said the need is there. It said most of the country’s nearly half a million school buses run on diesel fuel. On a typical school day in New Jersey, it said, more than 800,000 students ride to school on one of the state’s 15,000 diesel school buses.

With the support of the World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative, Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group are releasing a new report, “Electric School Buses & the Grid,” examining how the transition to electric school buses, in addition to keeping diesel exhaust out of developing lungs, could help speed up the expansion of clean energy by providing a critical source of reliable battery storage. 

The report comes on the heels of legislative consideration of S759/A1282, which will invest more than $45 million into electric school buses over the next three years.

The report, which is subtitled “Unlocking the power of school transportation to build resilience and a clean energy future,” finds that, if every yellow school bus currently in operation across New Jersey were replaced with an electric bus equipped with the right vehicle-to-grid technology, this would add over 2,179 megawatt-hours to the state’s capacity to store electricity, enough to power more than 68,142 average American homes for a day.

James Horrox, lead author of the report, said the movement is part of a clean-energy future.

Electric school buses & the grid

The report gives recommendations for lawmakers, utility companies and schools, including:

  • Lawmakers should provide funding for electric school buses, vehicle-to-grid and energy storage pilot programs and support research to develop and standardize technology, regulations and practices regarding the use of electric vehicles to store and return energy to the grid. Lawmakers should prioritize funding for underserved communities.
  • Utility companies and regulators should establish partnerships with school districts and public officials, help finance electric buses, restructure electricity rates to accommodate electric vehicle technology and clarify regulations regarding the use of electric vehicles to store and return energy to the grid.
  • School districts should commit to a full transition to electric buses on a specific timeline and invest in as large a fleet as possible as soon as possible. They should also establish solid collaborative partnerships with utilities from an early stage.

“The renewable, resilient electricity system of the future will rely on batteries to store clean electricity,” he said. “Electric school buses with vehicle-to-grid technology can play an important part in building that system, even as they clean the air our children breathe today.”

The moment has the support of some key legislators. 

State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-South Plainfield), chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the time for change is here.

“School buses are known to emit greenhouse gases and carcinogens, both of which contribute to climate change and threaten exposed individuals with elevated lifetime risks of developing cancer, asthma and heart disease,” he said. “As a state, we have goals to significantly lower our carbon emissions and become a greener place to live. 

“Transitioning from the conventional diesel-fueled buses to those with zero-emissions will significantly decrease our state’s pollution levels.”

Assemblyman Sterley Stanley (D-East Brunswick), vice chair of the Assembly Environment Committee, agreed.

“Investing in electric school buses is investing in a sustainable, healthy future,” he said. “We have an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enable vehicle-to-grid technology. This is just the beginning of how electric school buses will power our future.”

This additional storage could speed the transition to a renewable energy grid and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from both the transportation and power generation sectors. As electric school buses are mostly only in use during short, specific periods, buses could absorb renewable energy when it is available in abundance and release it during periods when it isn’t, such as at night. It could also allow electric school buses to provide additional power during unexpected demand spikes or emergency power during outages. Electrical utilities and system operators could compensate school districts for the grid services their buses provide, allowing school districts to save significant money over time.

Bill Beren, transportation chair for the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the state needs to pick up its game.

“New Jersey is lagging very far behind other states in the region regarding the electrification of the state’s school bus fleet,” he said. 

“Only $25 million has been allocated out of the VW settlement and the Regional Green House Gas Initiative payments to buy 77 electric school buses. Meanwhile, Montgomery County in Maryland has signed a contract to replace all 250 diesel school buses in their fleet, and both New York City and now New York state have set a goal to replace all their diesel school buses by 2035.”

O’Malley said it all makes perfect sense.

“Kids need a clean ride to school and a future powered by reliable, renewable energy,” he said. “By fully embracing the power of electric school bus technology, we can invest in cleaner, more efficient transportation and energy systems all at the same time.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center at: or call 609-392-5151.