Despite high costs, liberal groups, legislators support Maine electric school bus scheme

Left: Rep. Tina Riley (D-Jay) supports a proposal by Senator Eloise Vitelli (right) to convert Maine’s public school buses over to more expensive electric models.

AUGUSTA – Liberal groups and lawmakers lined up at a legislative committee hearing this week to support a bill to replace Maine’s public school bus fleet with electric buses. A few expressed concern about the cost of the plan, which would require the purchase of electric school buses at more than double the cost of buses Maine school districts usually purchase. The high price tags didn’t dissuade them from supporting the proposal overall.

According to testimony from the Maine Heritage Policy Center’s Adam Crepeau, the cost of one electric school bus is about $230,000. That is more than double the cost of a traditional school bus that runs on diesel. Crepeau also testified that the range of electric school buses is far lower (100-135 miles) than traditional buses, which can travel about 400 miles on a tank of fuel. That means the electric bus models would be very difficult to use on long range field trips, sporting events and other activities.

Cost and those practical concerns didn’t stop liberal groups and lawmakers from coming out to testify before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Rep. Tina Riley of Jay, a Democrat, testified in writing for the bill.

“The transition to this new technology is going to happen. Whether you love EVs or hate them, there is no doubt but that they are in our future,” said Rep. Riley.

While she expressed concern for the cost of the transition, Riley advocated for the committee to support the bill. “My work on the Energy Committee concerning electric vehicles (EVs) and related issues has convinced me that we must move forward in a purposeful manner, and whether this technological revolution inspires our economy or drags it down will depend largely on whether we step up to prepare for it or not.

The mention of the energy committee was an interesting one for Rep. Riley to make, as another person who testified, Frank Heller, challenged the committee’s expertise to make such a decision.

Heller, who worked as Operations Manager of one of the largest Head Start programs in the nation and purchased buses, along with working in the energy industry, testified to the members of the education committee, “Your committee is not qualified to decide which type of energy should power school buses, let alone whether this is preferred or better than other types like CNG or LNG; the decision must be shared with other committees using a broad set of criteria and not before each is tested for a period of time. Sales demos don’t qualify.”

Heller also pointed other issues with electric buses and urged lawmakers to take a broader, more competitive approach to the issue.

A review of the bus routes of the school district Rep. Riley represents, Spruce Mountain School District RSU #73, shows that the district runs twenty school buses in total. A review of the athletic schedule for Spruce Mountain Athletics shows that the school’s teams travel to places such as Boothbay Harbor (128.2 miles round trip), Wiscasset (100 miles round trip) and other trips.

Other groups also supported the bill.

Beth Athearn, speaking on behalf of Maine Conservation Voters urged support of the bill, arguing that the electric buses could be used to store energy when they are not in use and then feed the electricity back to the grid when the energy is needed, essentially using them as energy storage containers. Focusing on current school buses being “dirty” because of their fuel, Athearn argued that switching to electric school buses was an investment the legislature should make.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, Conservation Law Foundation and the Maine Education Association also testified in favor of the bill. The Conservation Law Foundation argued that the bill could potentially help reduce the cost of electricity for ratepayers by using buses as “mobile storage resources.”

Across the country, the conversion to electric buses has not always gone smoothly.

A report from CityLab in 2019 says that in Minnesota the cold weather has a severe impact on the range of the electric buses. An official with the Minnesota Valley Transportation Authority reported that one bus was only able to travel 16 miles on a day when the temperature dropped to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Reports from Reuters and other sources have suggested that electric buses experience serious loss of performance and charge in cold weather, extreme heat or on routes that have steep hills.

Along with Minnesota’s twin cities, buses in cities such as Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts have reportedly experienced performance issues due to cold weather. In Maine, schools are in session through the coldest of winter months, where temperatures regularly drop below freezing and extended stretches of cold can keep temperatures below zero for days at a time.

The bill, L.D. 1894, is sponsored by Senator Eloise Vitelli (D – Sagadahoc) who is the Assistant Majority Leader in the Maine Senate. A work session for the bill has been scheduled by the Education Committee for January 27th at 10am.

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