2023 State of Electric School Buses in Colorado

Colorado continues to be a leader at the state level while missing an opportunity at the federal level

Electric school buses are an important tool for eliminating dangerous air pollution that kids are exposed to every day by riding fossil fuel-powered school buses. At the same time, they are saving school districts money on fuel and maintenance while providing a healthier experience for kids and drivers alike. While the upfront costs are high, the combination of health and environmental benefits coupled with cost savings have led both state and federal leaders to provide grants and rebates, lowering the cost of purchasing these new buses for school districts. This year, those programs are bringing dozens of brand new electric school buses to schools and neighborhoods across the state.

Ted Gowals | Used by permission
Governor Polis announces $24 million in state and federal funding for Colorado school districts to transition to electric school buses.
Alexandra Simon

Former Public Health Advocate, CoPIRG Foundation

"Understanding that this bus symbolizes so much about our collective investment in our future." Vice President Kamala Harris, on announcing $1 billion in federal grants for electric school buses

Colorado continues to be a leader at the state level while missing an opportunity at the federal level

In 2023, investments in electric school buses surged. Both the federal EPA Clean School Bus Program and the state’s Colorado Electric School Bus Grant Program announced grant awards, releasing a flood of new electric school bus commitments from school districts both in Colorado and nationwide. In addition, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled the country touting the numerous health and economic benefits for students and school districts alike. 

In 2022, Colorado ranked second nationally in overall committed public funding for electric school buses and 11th in actual electric school bus commitments. “Committed” refers to a bus in any of the four stages of adoption: awarded, ordered, delivered, or operating; buses are considered committed once a school district or fleet operator has been awarded funding to purchase it.

In August 2023, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced awards  totalling $24 million in combined state and federal funds, which is included in the July 2023 data. The announcement means that up to 70 new buses should be coming to Colorado soon. 

With the CDPHE announcement in August 2023, thirteen school districts will receive money through the state grant program, growing the number of unique school districts or charter schools with committed electric school buses in Colorado from 12 in 2022 to 27 in 2023.

Unfortunately, Colorado school districts received less federal grant funding than most states in the EPA’s first round of the Clean School Bus Program, ranking 43rd out of all 50 states and 5 territories.

Alexandra Simon | Used by permission
Kamala Harris talks about electric school buses while visiting Colorado.

Electric school buses reduce pollution and save money

Electric school buses offer numerous benefits for both our health and tackling climate change by eliminating tailpipe emissions and diesel gas combustion. Inhalation of diesel exhaust has been linked to numerous health problems, including lung cancer, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory illnesses as well as having cognitive impacts

The transportation sector is one of the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado and school bus electrification is an important piece of the solution. By eliminating internal combustion engines and tailpipes, electric school buses do not emit harmful diesel exhaust that contributes to Colorado’s air pollution problem and produces much less carbon emissions that fuel climate change.

There’s a real call to action for us to electrify our fleets and try to reduce the footprint of the transportation sector that’s harming people, harming the globe, and if you think about tailpipe emissions at a local level about the students riding the bus, there are fumes and toxins that aren’t the best for human health. Landon Hilliard, Boulder Valley School District Safe Rides Coordinator on climate and health reasons inspiring his district to switch to electric buses 
Alexandra Simon | Public Domain
CoPIRG advocate Alex Simon checks out the front of an electric school bus, which does not have a traditional engine.

In addition, an analysis of fuel costs from an electric school bus in Kremmling, Colorado, found it was nearly three times cheaper to charge the electric bus than fuel the diesel version.  The electric bus also required less maintenance and had lower associated costs.

Electric school buses also offer benefits to the community. Their large battery size and long idle periods means they can have the capacity to store power and pump it back into the grid at peak demand, which can both offset costs or even generate additional revenue. For example, vehicle-to-grid (“V2G”) technology allows buses to use their batteries to store low cost energy and sell it back to the grid during periods of high demand. Vehicle-to-building (“V2B”) applications enable buses to provide backup power to buildings and critical facilities like hospitals and shelters during emergencies. Last September, Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper introduced a bill to invest in expanding these capabilities to more school buses.

Total public funding for electric school buses by state: Colorado continues to be a national leader ranking second for total public funding

Just over a year following our 2022 rankings, Colorado fell slightly from second to fourth for overall public awards, including both state and federal grant and rebate programs, see Chart 1 below. While the 2022 rankings did not include federal EPA funds (as that program was not yet in place), the 2023 rankings include the first round of the EPA Clean School Bus awards which were released in 2022. 

California continues to dominate public spending on the transition to  electric school buses, with California school districts receiving over $450 million in state and federal funds. As of July 2023, Colorado ranked fourth nationally, including $65 million in state grant funding, almost $3 million in 2022 EPA funds, as well as funding from previous grant programs.  

Colorado adds 16 new electric school bus commitments, falling from 16th to 23rd nationally

Between June 1, 2022 and August 1, 2023, Colorado school districts committed to purchasing 16 new electric school buses, bringing the total commitments to 52. An electric school bus is considered “committed” while in any of the four stages of adoption: awarded, ordered, delivered, or operating; buses are considered committed once a school district or fleet operator has been awarded funding to purchase it.

With 52 total electric school bus commitments, the state’s ranking nationally fell from 11th last year to 23rd this year as of August 1st. However, on August 25th, the state announced the first round of awards from the state grant program, releasing an estimated $21 million in state funding for an estimated 67 new electric school buses across 13 districts and charter schools. This influx of buses should lift Colorado’s rankings close to where it ranked last year. Once the exact number of committed buses is established, we will be able to update this ranking. 

Other past funding sources have also contributed to Colorado’s progress, and can be viewed on the Electric School Bus Initiative’s Data Dashboard.

Alexandra Simon | Used by permission
Colorado Governor Jared Polis joins advocates and parents to announce the EPA's new Clean School Bus Program in August 2022.
Alexandra Simon | Used by permission
Advocates and parents celebrate Aurora School Districts new electric buses

Federal funding opportunities: Colorado receives less than 1% of available EPA grants 

In May of 2022, the EPA launched a Clean School Bus Program, funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, providing $5 billion in funding over five years (2022- 2026), to replace existing school buses with zero or low-emission models. The program provides rebates to school districts, nonprofit school transportation associations and tribal organizations to replace older, diesel buses with newer, electric or low-emission models.  

The first round of funding applications under the new program opened in May 2022, and the EPA received approximately 2,000 applications requesting nearly $4 billion for 12,000 buses. Due to the high demand, the agency nearly doubled its initial $500 million rebate pool to $956 million.

Despite the extensive funding available, Colorado school districts received only a fraction (less than 1%) of those funds in the first round. The state has about 1.75% of the US population, but represented only 1% of total applicants, and secured only .32% of total funds and .28% of total buses, see charts 3 and 4 below.

In fact, the state ranked near the bottom in total grants received – 43rd out of all 50 states (and 5 territories) in total awards received in Round 1 (see chart below).

In April 2023, the EPA opened the application period for the second round of grant fundingwith an estimated $400 million available. The application deadline closed August 22 and awards are anticipated by March 2024.

Why didn’t more Colorado school districts apply for or receive federal funding in this first round? A variety of factors were cited when the author spoke with school board members and fleet managers, including:

  • Limited resources: With limited time and staff resources, it can be difficult to submit the applications even if there is money available, especially when there are many other topics competing for school board and executive time and energy
  • Lack of education: Electric school buses are relatively new to the marketplace and many school board members and executives are simply not familiar with the technology and benefits that these buses can bring in terms of health and fiscal savings.
  • Lack of familiarity with the programs and lack of grant writing capacity: Many school districts do not have grant writers on staff and are not familiar with the process of applying for state and federal programs. Without a dedicated person to drive the application process, the perceived burden of the application can deter districts from beginning the process. 
  • Limited technical expertise around electric school bus maintenance and charging: Especially at smaller school districts, staff may not have the technical expertise or access to workforce development training programs necessary to work with the new technology that is part of maintaining and charging a new electric bus.
  • Safety concerns around electric bus batteries: Following an electric bus fire in Connecticut, there was a perception that electric bus batteries may be at risk of catching fire. In fact, evidence has shown that batteries on electric school buses are less likely to cause fires than internal combustion engines. More information is available on battery safety and testing from the Electric School Bus Initiative.
  • Inability to recruit school bus drivers: an ongoing shortage of drivers for school buses has forced many districts to cut bus routes, making choices about purchasing new school buses more challenging.

State funding opportunities: Colorado Electric School Bus Grant Program kicks off with $21 million for 67 new electric school buses

Colorado affirmed its commitment to electric school buses on the state level when the  General Assembly and Governor Jared Polis worked together to invest $65 million to incentivize school districts to purchase new electric school buses rather than traditional diesel models. The rebates cover the cost differential between purchasing a new diesel versus an electric model, alongside associated charging infrastructure and administrative costs. The program is designed to work as a complement to the federal funding and will also prioritize disproportionately impacted communities, rural areas, and Tribal districts. 

The Colorado Electric School Bus Grant Program opened for applications in March and closed the application period on June 30th.

On Aug. 25, 2023, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) announced the first round of awards, totaling $24 million in state and federal funding to support electric school buses and charging infrastructure in 13 school districts. This represents approximately $21 million in state funding ($24 million total less the $2.89 million in 2022 EPA funds) which could fund up to 70 new electric school buses. 

The grant funding expands the number of school districts in Colorado that have electric school buses committed from 12 in 2022 to 27 in 2023, with Boulder Valley School District adding the most (7) new electric buses, see Chart 4 below. Several smaller, rural districts like Big Sandy and Primero were first-time applicants, something the EPA program prioritized. The total number of electric school bus commitments is currently 52, but will increase following additional details from the state about the number of buses funded. 

Despite the good news for children in those districts, only about 7% of school districts statewide applied for the program, signaling that more work needs to be done to identify and remove barriers to applying. 

The chart below shows all the school districts and charter schools that have at least one electric school bus commitment in Colorado. CDPHE’s announcement included the names of the 13 districts that will be receiving funding, but not the number of buses each district will receive – this is marked with a “tbd,” pending additional information from the state.

Chart 6: Total committed electric school buses in Colorado by district or charter school

These [electric school buses] are more reliable than diesel buses, lower costs to operate, better for the bus drivers and better for the kids, and freeing up money for better teacher pay and smaller class size. What could be better? Colorado Governor Jared Polis on the many benefits electric school buses will bring to the state

2023 Electric School Bus Funding Timeline

  • March 9, 2023 – Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) opens up applications for the first round of funding for the state’s grant program
  • April 24, 2023 – EPA Notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) opens for second round of funding
  • June 30, 2023 – Applications period closes for CO state rebate program
  • Aug 22, 2023 – EPA NOFO period closes for second round of funding
  • Aug 25, 2023 –  CDPHE announces awards for first round of state rebate program 
  • Feb / March 2024 – Anticipated announcement of EPA second round awards

Recommendations

Unprecedented resources at both the state and federal levels are currently available to help school districts overcome the upfront costs of purchasing new electric school buses and associated charging infrastructure. Despite this, the number of Colorado school districts receiving federal funding is among the lowest in the country, and only a small fraction of total districts in Colorado applied for either state or federal funding. 

 

Recommendations for Colorado school districts

  • Set a goal to end the purchase of new fossil fuel buses and transition to a 100% zero-emission fleet. This can send an important market signal and help bring the school community together behind a single goal.
  • Create an account on www.SAM.gov, which is a precursor to applying for federal funds. It is free to set up an account and three additional rounds of funding will be available through 2026.
  • Connect with a ReCharge coach who can provide detailed information about funding, incentives and workforce training.
  • Sign up for updates on the Colorado Electric School Bus Grant Program and either attend or watch an informational webinar about the program.
  • Explore all possible financing options:
  • Start a conversation with your utility company as early as possible to see what resources they can provide. Many utilities offer consulting services to assess wiring and charging needs or rebates to reduce the costs of the wiring upgrades and infrastructure installation. In addition, work with your utility to ensure a competitive charging price system is in place.

 

Recommendations for lawmakers

  • Identify and remove barriers Incentivize utility companies to develop effective and consistent rates for electric school bus charging, particularly around peak demand rates.
  • Financially support research and development in electric school bus technology, including vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-building technology. 

 

Recommendations for utilities

  • Continue to increase renewable energy capacity on the grid, making electric buses even cleaner.
  • Develop turnkey programs to assist school districts in assessing their charging needs and providing incentives for charging infrastructure.
  • Financially support research and development in electric school bus technology, including vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-building technology. 
  • Establish bulk purchase savings programs to lower costs for school districts. 
  • Create pricing structures that incentivize school districts to use vehicle-to-building and/or vehicle-to-grid opportunities from school buses

Recommendations for parents and students  

  • Call on your school board to convert to electric school buses by passing a resolution to transition the fleet to 100% electric buses and only purchase electric school buses moving forward.
  • Share information about electric school buses at PTA meetings and other educational forums to increase understanding of the benefits for students and school districts.
  • Recruit volunteers to help with grant writing for smaller school districts to compete for this money. 

 

View our 2022 State of Electric School Bus Report here. 

Ted Gowals | Used by permission
Sawyer Simon, 4, supports transitioning to electric school buses, August 2023.
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Alexandra Simon

Former Public Health Advocate, CoPIRG Foundation

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