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More electric school buses are coming to Boston

A federal grant provides money for a fleet upgrade.

An electric school bus getting a charge.OLIVER PARINI/NYT

Each school day, 640 yellow school buses chug through Boston’s neighborhoods shuttling students to and from class. The majority of the buses run on diesel, spewing pollutants that are bad for the planet and for human health.

On Monday, the Biden Administration announced a plan to hasten their demise — $1 billion for new electric school buses nationwide, including $20 million in grant money for 50 new ones in Boston, plus the infrastructure to support them.

Those electric buses, which are expected to be road-ready by the summer of 2025, will join 20 other EV buses that are already in use in Boston and another 19 that have been ordered and should arrive this school year. It’s all part of the effort to green the school department’s bus fleet to be totally electric by 2030.

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“This unprecedented federal investment will mean healthier commutes for our students and bus drivers, cleaner air in our neighborhoods, and a giant step in our transition to a greener and climate-ready city,” said Mayor Michelle Wu.

Three other Massachusetts communities won grants as well. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus Program Grants Competition will award funds for 10 new electric buses in Fall River and New Bedford and 15 in Worcester. Nationally, the EPA is supporting 67 applicants.

“Electric school buses are bright yellow symbols of how Massachusetts is tackling the climate crisis,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said in an interview with the Globe. “It’s a win-win-win-win — just keep checking off the categories — because it is about kids’ health, about clean communities, about equity in communities that too often have borne the brunt of environmental challenges, and about cost.”

That’s why the Biden administration has made converting school bus fleets a central part of its climate effort. Electrifying the full US school bus fleet by 2030 — powered by renewable energy — would eliminate the same amount of greenhouse gasses as removing 2 million cars from the road, according to the Electric School Bus Initiative, a project of the World Resources Institute aimed at transitioning the US school bus fleet.

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Not to mention the health impacts. Nationally, exposure to diesel pollution from transportation sources contributes to 3,700 heart attacks, 8,800 deaths, and $100 billion in health damages each year, according to the EPA. Diesel pollution has also been linked to cancer in humans and can be especially harmful to children with asthma.

Electric battery buses have no tailpipe emissions. While charging the battery requires energy, if the electricity is generated from renewable sources like solar or wind, electric vehicles produce virtually no air pollution.

For Boston, a crucial aspect of the grant is that it provides not just the buses but the charging infrastructure too, said interim director of transportation for Boston Public Schools, Jacqueline Hayes. It takes a lot to charge hundreds of buses — not just the individual chargers but also the wires and infrastructure to handle a major strain on the system.

Since 2021, the city has been partnering with Eversource to build out capacity at one of its bus yards and has the infrastructure in place. Some of the new grant money will support upgrades at a second Boston bus yard. Ultimately, Hayes said the school department aims to have batteries on hand, too, “so we’re not charging 700 buses all at once across three yards, but rather charging batteries throughout the day.” Those stationary batteries can be used later to charge the batteries on the buses.

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But for now, it’s all about the basics — having sufficient chargers and ironing out the kinks to transition from fossil fuel to electric buses. And teaching drivers how to maneuver the all-electric powertrain.

The first 20 electric school buses in Boston have helped with those lessons, Hayes said. Drivers have been trained on regenerative breaking (the time between when a driver stops accelerating and when they hit the brakes, which provides charge to an electric engine), understanding how extreme cold or heat impacts the engine’s function, and learning things like how to handle the increased weight of an electric bus when navigating hills.

While advocates and political leaders cheered the news Monday, Anna Vanderspek, who leads the electric vehicle program at the Green Energy Consumers Alliance, said that more money is needed.

“It is a lot of funding — but it’s a lot of funding spread over the entire country,” she said.

But, she said, the state and utilities are stepping in to fill gaps. A program through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is providing grant funding for electric infrastructure and buses. An Eversource program to help provide funds for charging heavy-duty vehicles like school buses is already totally subscribed, but National Grid has a program that can cover charging infrastructure upgrades.

Warren said she also hopes to see more federal funds, too.

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“Nothing builds success like success,” she said. “We’ll build on this to allocate more federal funds so that every school bus in the country can be electric by 2030 — and if we do our jobs right, I hope we get it done before then.”


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.