Electrifying Canada's School Bus Fleet
Highlights from the CESBA conference
Published June 21st 2023
The Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance (CESBA) recently concluded its successful conference, “Electrifying Canada’s School Bus Fleet: Challenges, Lessons Learned and Solutions”, which took place virtually from May 30 to June 8.
As a reminder, the objectives of this first conference were to:
- Exchange best practices from provincial leaders and fleet operators who are enabling and operationalizing the transition to electric school buses (ESBs);
- Contribute to the development of recommendations to accelerate ESB adoption to be published by CESBA in late 2023; and
- Establish stronger networks across provinces to build a pan-Canadian movement in favour of ESBs.
This is a recap of the questions and answers shared during the conference.
May 30, 2023 | Exploring Pathways to 100% Electric School Bus Adoption
In this panel discussion moderated by Louise Lévesque, Policy Director at Electric Mobility Canada, Dunsky Energy+Climate’s Clean Mobility Director, Jeff Turner, and Équiterre’s Director of Government Relations, Marc-André Viau, discussed the results of the new research report Pathways for Canadian Electric School Bus Adoption, focusing on the costs, the number of ESBs and the federal support needed to support a transition towards 100% ESBs by 2040.
Marc-André Viau: Because it is a low-hanging fruit. Electrifying school buses holds strong political appeal as it impedes school children’s health from being worsened by air pollution. From a technical perspective, it is easier to electrify school buses due to their short duty cycle. They have extended periods of downtime during weekends, holidays and evenings, allowing for convenient charging and maintenance. From a climate perspective, while the school bus fleet represents a small proportion of GHG emissions in the transportation sector, GHG emissions from the heavy-duty transport continue to rise, and electrifying school buses is the easy first step in the electrification of this sub-sector.
Jeff Turner: Currently, across Canada, there are around 50,000 school buses, with 70% of those still running on diesel. The number of ESBs is around 500, representing about 1% of the school bus fleet, with PEI leading the way with its 25% electrified fleet.
Jeff Turner: There is a diverse range of funding programs available for ESBs in Canada. For example, at the provincial level, the BC government implemented the CleanBC Go Electric School Bus Program. At the federal level, there is the Zero Emission Transit Fund that launched in 2021, with funding that can cover 50% of capital project costs and 80% of planning project costs, further helping public transit and school bus operators transition towards zero emission buses.
Marc-André Viau: The QC government aims to electrify 65% of its school bus fleet by 2030, and offers subsidies for ESB purchases. For fiscal year 2022-2023, the provincial subsidy was reduced from $150,000 to $125,000. The government also intends, as part of its Plan for a Green Economy, to adopt a zero emission vehicles standard for heavy- and medium-duty vehicles, similarly to light-duty vehicles.
Jeff Turner: With a 12-year lifespan, this means that 100% of ESB sales today must be electric. I think that is something we could do in some regions, but I think it is going to take a few years for that period of acceleration in vehicle battery production, but also in terms of charging infrastructure and educating fleets and operators. The highest number of ESB replacements would be happening in 2023-2024, with approximately 5,600 ESBs per year. Subsequently, the replacement rate would continue between 3,000 and 4,000 ESBs per year until 2035.
Marc-André Viau: It is very ambitious, but it is feasible as long as there is political will to do so. States like California and New York have a 2035 target. However, governments should not just stick to targets, but put in place binding regulations. For instance, the federal government should introduce a zero-emission vehicle standard for heavy-duty transport with a strong regulatory framework.
June 1, 2023 | Leading Electric School Bus Adoption at the Provincial Level
In this panel discussion moderated by Jean-Patrick Toussaint from the Trottier Family Foundation, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island government experts, David McKay and Matt Collins, outlined the state of ESB in their respective province, existing adoption targets, and innovative policies implemented by the government.
David McKay: After the BC government launched the CleanBC Go Electric School Bus Program in 2020, 18 buses were ordered within the first year. There have been a total of 72 ESBs ordered since the launch. With this trend, we can expect a continued increase in adoption across the province.
Matt Collins: In PEI, in 2020, we did our first trial with 12 ESBs. Then, we followed up with back-to-back years of 35 ESB orders, so we will have a total of 82 on the road very soon. We have got 25 buses in tender, but we are waiting for another federal funding agreement to be signed.
Matt Collins: 85% of our present school buses are parked at the drivers’ residence because of the often long distances between the bus depots and where the drivers operate and live. Home-charging makes it easier for drivers.
It is also cheaper: we added two home-charging stations in the spring of 2022, and they ended up being cheaper than conventional mass charging sites. If the drivers gets sick, retires or gets fired, the cost of removing and relocating the portable charging station is only between $500 and $1,000.
In addition, since the chargers are 19.2 kWh – less than the 20 kWh cutoff value of our public utility -, we don’t have to pay for the demand meter extra fee, as opposed to mass charging sites: $530 a month at a mass charging site versus $400 at the driver’s home versus $834 for a diesel bus.
David McKay: There are currently four programs that either support ESBs themselves or provide funding for the infrastructure:
- Our primary program is the CleanBC Go Electric School Bus Program that helps with buses, level 2 chargers, as well as facility assessment. This program has been the main driver of ESB adoption as it is fairly simple for schools to apply for funding.
- Second comes the Specialty-Use Vehicle Incentive program which is a vehicle rebate that ESBs are eligible for.
- The third opportunity is the CleanBC Go Electric Fleets Program, providing infrastructure funding which can help electric school bus operators that may need fast charging (e.g., businesses, remote communities).
- The fourth program is the Commercial Vehicle Pilots Program, supporting vehicles and infrastructure in pilot cases, such as school bus pilot projects.
June 6, 2023 | Advocating for Electric School Bus Adoption in Key Provinces
This webinar, moderated by Green Communities Canada’s Executive Director, Brianna Salmon, looked at the challenges, successes and approaches being taken by advocacy groups in Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in regards to school bus electrification.
Elizabeth Gresh (Conservation Council of New Brunswick): In 2021, out of the 1,200 buses fleet, only 2 ESBs were purchased. In March 2023, the Department of Education purchased 20 more ESBs, but also signed for an extra 90 diesel buses…
The Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB) is continuing to meet with key government stakeholders to achieve a formal commitment to electrify the provincial school bus fleet over the long-term. The main argument is that ESBs are good for children’s health since diesel emissions cause 3,000 child acute bronchitis episodes every year in Canada. This is why the CCNB is also collecting data on fine particulate matter with the New Brunswick Lung Association around school drop-off zones.
Thomas Arnason McNeil (Ecology Action Centre): PEI has committed to replace its 322 school buses with electric buses by 2030. They have gained the support from the drivers and union leaders. PEI has relied entirely on available federal funding through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program. They are making ESBs crucial in disaster-related power outages and, in that sense, have been collaborating with Lion Electric to use V2G-enabled ESBs to provide power to emergency community disaster relief centres.
Nova Scotia could learn from PEI through knowledge-sharing opportunities on operational data, best practices and workforce training, for instance.
Marc Saleh (Pollution Probe): There are 20,860 school buses in Ontario, representing about 41% of the Canadian school bus fleet. Less than 1% of Ontario’s fleet is electric.
Pollution Probe recommends increasing funding to school transportation boards (STB) who can provide funding for ESB demonstrations. We also ask Ontario to incorporate ESB targets into provincial policies and programs, and enact policy to accelerate the retirement of older diesel school buses to replace them with ESBs. In addition, operator contracts between STBs and school boards should introduce a mandatory clause to ensure that a minimal proportion of the fleet is electric.
Adam Thorn (Pembina Institute): There is a potential to revitalize the local economy of small and medium-sized enterprises that constitute 90% of Ontario’s auto industry; an industry that lost 90% of its pre-2008 production level after the 2008 financial crisis.
According to Pembina Institute, electric bus manufacturers create about 20 new jobs for every $1 million of plant investment. If Ontario follows Quebec’s target of 65% ESBs by 2030, Ontario’s ESB sector could result in around 10,800 new jobs and $1,5 billion in GDP in 2030.
Small auto parts suppliers such as Tube Fab are already finding new business avenues by supplying the ESB manufacturers. ESB manufacturing will lead to restructuring of the auto supply chain, creating new opportunities for SMEs.
June 8, 2023 | Operating Electric School Buses from Coast to Coast
In this panel discussion moderated by Green Economy Canada’s Donald Jantz, Philippe Langlois from Autobus Chambly and Frank Marasco from the Association of Student Transportation Services of BC discussed the realities of operating ESB as pioneering fleet operators in their province.
Frank Marasco: The first ESB that appeared in BC was four years ago, and there are now 75 ESBs on the road. We have been supporting the school bus industry since 1965 and things have changed a lot recently in terms of technology and safety.
Philippe Langlois: We are operators so things have changed a lot in our fleet. We started our company in 1966 and have made the green choice to integrate ESBs into our fleet in 2018. Things have changed a lot since 2021 because it became mandatory to gradually electrify our fleet every year. Before 2021, there was far less technological improvement: a 2003 school bus and today’s diesel buses were pretty much the same.
Frank Marasco: 40% of fleets within British Columbia are to be zero emission by 2030. One fleet might be 80% and the other one might be 20%. Different funding programs for ESBs and the charging infrastructure are pushing for this electrification. All school divisions that are purchasing buses receive capital funding from the Ministry of Education. That is a core-based funding that would be the equivalent to the cost of a diesel bus. It has had a huge impact with what has happened. There’s definitely been some growing pains and changes that have been occurring but it is a good thing that is coming to fruition in BC.
Philippe Langlois: Subsidies from the QC’s Ministry of Transportation are helping by offsetting the initial cost of ESBs. But unfortunately, they are regressive: in 2021, the subsidy was $150,000 per ESB purchased; in 2022, it went down to $125,000 per bus and this year, it is $100,000. Further, these subsidies are ending on March 31st, 2024. The government showed strong support by covering 75% of the cost of chargers and infrastructure; however, this financial support is also ending in 2024.
We also have a school board’s financial incentive that went down from $15,000 per contract in 2022 to $8,000 this year. The reason why these subsidies are regressive is because they assumed that the cost of ESBs would gradually become cheaper as a result of better technology and market penetration. But with inflation on raw materials, it is not the case. This is a major financial challenge we are facing right now.
Philippe Langlois: We currently have five LionC school buses that all have an autonomy of 100 kilometers. Right now, we are pushing these buses to the limits as we put them on routes between 92 and 112 kilometers. I wish we could have more autonomy but higher autonomy comes with higher pricing. Our next step is to get buses with higher autonomy so that we can avoid situations where buses’ autonomy are maxed out.
We would like to extend our gratitude to all the researchers, advocates, government stakeholders, and fleet operators who joined us for this first conference and shared their knowledge and experience on school bus electrification.
Together, we can continue to drive positive change and accelerate the electrification of our school bus fleet to reach 100% ESBs by 2040 in Canada.