Washoe aims to move ahead with electric school buses

So 20th century
Zemlinki (CC BY 2.0)

A fleet of electric buses may be coming to a school district near you, propelled by a $3 million dollar incentive program.

Simply dubbed the “Electric School Bus Program,” the incentives package meant to accelerate school bus electrification was approved by state regulators last week as part of NV Energy’s annual plan for clean energy programs.

Funds for the program are collected from NV Energy ratepayers who are charged a fraction of a percent per kilowatt hour. The program can cover up to 75 percent of the upfront cost of the bus or charging infrastructure.

The question now is whether school districts will give the unfamiliar technology a chance given the rise of COVID-19 and accompanying public budget shortfalls.

Advocates like Cameron Dyer, a clean energy program staff attorney for the Western Resource Advocates, a conservation group that advocates for electric buses in Nevada, argues school district officials need to think about the long term benefits of clean energy transportation.

“Every year, school districts replace old buses, regardless of budget shortfalls,” Dyer said. “The effects of COVID-19 will persist for much longer than the next fiscal year; electric buses help solve future problems, today.”

So far, the program has only received one application which is currently under review, and while the power company said it can’t provide information on customer applications, several school districts have signaled interest in the program including the Carson City School District, the Clark County School District, and the Washoe County School District (WCSD).

Washoe is furthest along in the process. Despite the pandemic and its accompanying public budget complications, WCSD, the second largest school district in the state, plans to apply for funding of two electric school buses and two fast charging stations.

“Recently with the whole unknown financial situation brought about by the pandemic we’ve had internal discussions about whether this was something we had to put on hold, and leadership in the district wants us to keep moving forward in developing the plans for the pilot,” said Jason Geddes, the Energy Conservation & Sustainability Program Manager at WCSD.

The district’s goal “upon successful completion of the pilot is to start expanding the bus fleet to more and more electric wherever we can,” Geddes said.

NV Energy has met with four school districts across Nevada to discuss the application process and gauge interest, said Sarah Chatterjee, the Director of Renewable Energy Programs at NV Energy. The power company provides technical assistance, route analysis, cost/benefit analysis, and analysis on how the change will impact electricity bills for school districts.

Since the beginning of 2020, NV Energy has also collaborated with the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection to inform school districts about additional funding available through the Nevada Clean Diesel Program and the Volkswagen settlement fund.

“I think the strength here is being able to partner with these funding sources and really deliver projects that potentially cover up to 100 percent of the cost of an electric school bus and the infrastructure,” Chatterjee said.

Washoe County is looking to the Twin Rivers Unified School District in Northern California as an example of a success story. 

Twin Rivers started its electric fleet in 2016 with two buses and has since ballooned to 30, making it the largest fleet in the county, according to Tim Shannon, director of transportation for the school district.

Shannon said analysis of the fleet shows that the district saves about $15,000 a year on maintenance and fuel. 

“We are moving along the way with electrification because it not only makes financial sense, it makes sense for clean air for the kids and the community. I mean, you used to not be able to breath walking through our bus yard,” Shannon said, adding that the district plans to electrify over 90 percent of its fleet. 

Since transportation overtook the electricity sector in 2015 to become the largest source of carbon emissions in Nevada — according to a 2019 report from the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection — Chispa Nevada and other environmental groups have pushed for investment in electric school buses. 

Nevada lawmakers took up the mantle last year when Gov. Steve Sisolak signed Senate Bill 299 into law, directing NV Energy to partially cover the cost of electric buses and related charging infrastructure for school districts in Nevada.

Chispa Nevada has since been in contact with several school districts to advocate for the program, even holding webinars throughout the pandemic to inform school staff and parents about the benefits of vehicle electrification.

The emergence of COVID-19 has only compounded the dangers of health issues that are exacerbated by air pollution like asthma, said Rudy Zamora, director of Chispa Nevada.

“COVID like all other respiratory issues our community faces are not separate issues,” Zamora said, adding that illnesses disproportionately affect communities of color. 

Numerous studies have documented how minority and poor communities face disproportionately poor air quality, which can be even more harmful in sprawling urban areas with minimal public transit but multi-lane streets,

Ozone pollution possesses a challenge in Northern Nevada’s larger cities like Reno and Sparks, said Daniel Inouye, branch chief of the Washoe County Health District Air Quality Management division.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Area — where 7 out of 10 Nevadan’s live — is home to the states only basin listed as an “ozone marginal nonattainment area,” according to the Clark County Department of Air Quality, meaning it does not meet EPA national ambient air quality standards for ozone.

Jodie Bechtel, assistant director of Clark County’s department of Environment and Sustainability, the air pollution agency for Clark County, said Southern Nevada’s geography, topography, climate and location make for a perfect oven to cook and trap ozone.

“Everything we can do to lower ozone will help us here in Southern Nevada especially since there are things we can not control like our topography and our climate and our location,” Bechtel said. “We’ve had great success with improving our air quality but there is still work to be done. Every effort counts.”

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.