Massachusetts electric school bus pilot provides lessons for the future

Media Contacts
Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Mixed results in three school districts will help inform larger-scale adoption


BOSTON — In 2015, three Massachusetts school districts became among the first in the country to test electric school bus technology. A new report from MASSPIRG Education Fund, Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group highlights the districts’ experience, along with those of five other early adopters, illuminating the successes, challenges and lessons learned.

“Getting to school or commuting to work shouldn’t include a daily dose of toxic pollution,” said Matt Casale, MASSPIRG Transportation Campaign director. “And why would we continue to use dirty diesel buses — many of which our tax dollars pay for — if they are making the climate crisis worse?”

The report features case studies of six rollouts of electric buses, including in Seneca, South Carolina; Chicago; Seattle; Albuquerque; Twin Rivers, California, and Amherst, Cambridge and Concord, Massachusetts. 

As part of the Massachusetts electric school bus pilot program, Amherst Public Schools, Concord Public Schools and Cambridge Public Schools each received one electric bus. The results of the pilot program were published in a comprehensive evaluation undertaken by the Vermont Energy and Investment Corporation. From an environmental standpoint, the buses performed well, emitting less than half the greenhouse gases of diesel school buses over their life-cycle, and considerably lower levels of other harmful pollutants that impact kids’ health. The vehicles had no difficulties with expected range, and cold weather did not have a marked impact on their performance. But the buses did not deliver the expected cost savings, a result that might have been avoided with more detailed upfront planning and collaboration with utilities.

“Every new technology goes through growing pains and electric buses are no different,” said James Horrox, policy analyst with Frontier Group and lead author of the report. “But the early experiences of cities that have adopted electric buses show that the hurdles can be overcome — and that the payoff in cleaner air, better health and monetary savings can be massive.” 

The report recommends that cities, transit agencies and school districts transitioning to electric buses learn from those who came before them. In addition, agencies should ensure that contracts with bus manufacturers have warranties in the event that the vehicles delivered do not perform as promised. And after a successful pilot run, transit agencies and schools should invest in as large a fleet as possible to benefit from economies of scale.

The report’s authors and other environmental organizations are calling on the MBTA, the RTAs and school districts across Massachusetts to accelerate the electrification of school and transit buses.

“Tailpipe pollution is the number one contributor to climate disrupting emissions and it impacts the health of our most vulnerable communities the hardest,” said Veena Dharmaraj, Conservation and Development Program Manager with the Massachusetts Sierra Club. “Now is the time for MBTA to act boldly to curb emissions and lead on clean transportation.” 

“Electric buses are ready for prime-time and with thoughtful planning and execution, we can have more zero-emission buses taking Bay Staters to work and school here in Massachusetts,” said Peter Schneider, Clean Energy Organizer with Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center. “The next generation of electric buses is ready to hit the road with groundbreaking new technology to help clean our air and promote healthier communities. There’s no need to cloud our landscape with diesel fumes ever again.”