Electric Buses in America

Lessons from Cities Pioneering Clean Transportation


Proterra Inc. via Wikimedia Commons

America’s bus network plays a crucial role in the lives of millions of people, providing transport for those who cannot or do not wish to drive, and carrying up to half of all American children to and from school every day. The majority of America’s buses, however, are still powered by polluting fossil fuels, such as diesel, that pose a serious risk to public health and contribute to global warming.


Although diesel exhaust poses significant risks to our health and the planet, diesel remains the main fuel used to power America’s buses, fueling around half of the country’s nearly 70,000 transit buses and 95 percent of its school buses.

Q98.5 Rockford, via YouTube


Electric buses: Lessons from cities pioneering clean transportation

Battery-powered electric buses can reduce the environmental and health threats posed by diesel buses, while also providing a reliable and cost-effective option for cities and school districts. Advances in electric bus technology and a rapid decline in battery costs over recent years have made electric buses an increasingly viable option for many transit agencies and school districts.

However, electric buses are still an emerging technology. Transit agencies and school districts considering electric buses need to know what to expect — and, more importantly, how to get the greatest benefit from their investment.

The experiences of six early adopters of electric buses illustrate the challenges that agencies have faced, as well as the benefits many have received, from their electric bus pilots. To speed up the rollout of electric buses and ensure that cities see the benefits of these vehicles, state and city officials should commit to a transition to electric buses on a specific timeline and create favorable utility rate structures for transit agencies that include reduced off-peak energy rates and limited demand charges.


Electric buses deliver numerous benefits to the communities they serve

1. By eliminating diesel exhaust emissions, particulate pollution and pollutants that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, they improve the air quality in our communities.

2. They produce significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions than diesel, diesel hybrid and natural gas-powered buses. Replacing all of the country’s diesel-powered transit buses with electric buses could eliminate more than 2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

3. Electric buses can deliver financial benefits, including substantially reduced maintenance costs and, in places where utility rate policies are favorable, reduced fuel costs.

4. By reducing air pollution, electric buses can also deliver significant societal benefits, including avoided healthcare expenses resulting from cleaner air.

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While electric buses have often performed well in early pilots and been cheaper to fuel and maintain than their diesel counterparts, some early adopters have also experienced a set of technological and economic hurdles that future electric bus programs will need to overcome.

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Due to a string of mechanical problems and inadequate infrastructure planning, as well as a rocky relationship with the bus manufacturer, Albuquerque experienced one of the least successful electric bus rollouts in the nation. The city’s experience provides valuable lessons learned, which Albuquerque will put to use soon. In August 2019, the city announced its intention to relaunch its electric bus efforts.

Mixed results from the piloting of electric school buses in three cold-weather Massachusetts cities provide valuable lessons for school districts hoping to follow in their footsteps.


Recommendations: Elected officials and utilities

1. States, cities, towns and school districts should commit to a full transition to electric buses on a specific timeline. These commitments will help grow the market, drive technological innovation, and enable transit agencies and school districts to gain the benefits of economies of scale in maintenance facilities, operational experience and electricity pricing.

2. States should provide grant programs and subsidies for agencies to go electric. This will ensure agencies and the communities they serve will experience the benefits of electric buses without additional financial burdens being placed on the agencies themselves.

3. Utilities should implement financing programs in which they front the initial investment for electric buses and allow cities and school districts to pay back on utility bills as they save on fuel and maintenance costs. These “pay as you save” (PAYS) financing programs can help agencies overcome the higher upfront costs of electric buses and deliver monetary savings immediately.

4. Utilities should provide discounted off-peak charging rates, limit excessive demand charges and experiment with policies and practices that allow battery-electric buses to be used for storage/use vehicle to grid technology.


Recommendations: Transit agencies and school districts

1. Establish solid collaborative partnerships with utilities from an early stage, and open a dialogue about goals and interests from the outset. Agencies should work with public officials and local utilities to enact a transportation rate for electricity and use rate modeling in the planning process for launching electric bus service.

2. Ensure contracts with the bus manufacturers include provisions to guarantee protection in the event that the vehicles delivered do not perform as promised.

3. Be realistic about the capabilities of electric buses for particular routes and conditions, and study route modeling data to determine the appropriate type of bus for the route.

4. Before going to bid, shadow existing diesel buses with electric vehicles from different vendors and ensure that the bid includes the needs identified in the route study.

5. Invest in as large a fleet as possible as soon as proof of concept can be established. Ensure the availability of additional electrical capacity and build the infrastructure to be able to add more chargers, including on-route charging infrastructure where necessary. The larger the fleet, the greater the potential economies of scale, and the greater the opportunity to demonstrate the vehicles’ functionality and desirability.

6. Acquire as much data as possible from agencies already using the technology. Ask agencies where they’ve been successful, where they’ve failed, and where they’ve worked with manufacturers and utilities to find solutions to issues that have arisen.

7. Include environmental and health benefits (for example, the “social cost of carbon”) in any evaluation of the costs and benefits of electric buses. Calculations of return on investment should include the total societal cost for the life cycle of an electric bus versus a diesel bus.