Las Cruces talks challenges with electric buses

School district spend $1.95M in federal grants for 5 buses to pick up students in 2024

By: - September 5, 2023 5:00 am

A school bus pulls up to drop off kids in September 2021. Five school districts in New Mexico received federal funds to replace diesel buses with all-electric or low-emission models. (Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Las Cruces officials told New Mexico lawmakers they’re looking for more local support in the effort to bring electric school buses to the state with federal grants, during Thursday’s Science Technology and Telecommunication interim committee meeting in Santa Rosa.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is spending $5 billion over the next five years to fund school district purchases of electric and lower-emission buses across the nation.

In 2022, the first year funding was open, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Las Cruces nearly $2 million dollars for five electric buses to replace diesel counterparts. Those buses aren’t expected for delivery to the Southern New Mexico school district until March 2024.

Other districts

Five other New Mexico school districts received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency. Dora, Dulce and Lake Arthur school districts received between $610,000 and $790,000 for two buses in each district.

Pecos Independent School district received $390,000 for one bus.

The grants promised rebates for not only buses but the infrastructure to charge them.

The most recent application closed last week, and more awards will be announced by the Environmental Protection Agency next year.

Electric school buses cost about $400,000 – about three times the cost of diesel school buses outright – according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Gabe Jacquez said Las Cruces spent $400,000 on each bus, compared to $125,000 for diesel replacements.

Jacquez, the deputy superintendent for Operations and Leadership in LCPS, said the district would work to give the legislature what the lifetime savings were at a future date.

However, buses are often zero-emission and low-emission models that improve air quality and reduce climate impacts. More than 25 million children across the country ride buses, the vast majority of which use diesel fuel – a high polluter. Diesel exhaust is considered a ‘likely carcinogen,’ by federal agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that electrifying 200 of Denver’s school buses could mean $461,000 in fuel costs and remove 1,700 tons of carbon dioxide per year – the same as taking 370 passenger cars off the road for the same amount of time. In New Mexico, about 166,000 children ride school buses to over 89 school districts, according to a Conservation Voters New Mexico Education Fund study.

New Mexico lawmakers asked how they could support electric school bus efforts for local districts.

Jacquez offered some consideration for lawmakers. He told the committee that the legislature should consider more support for districts, consider using capital outlay for infrastructure and ensure state money can be used for buying matching federal funds.

Another point, Jacquez testified, is to start discussions to look at renewable energy buyback programs, since New Mexico public schools don’t qualify for tax credits.

“We don’t pay taxes, but if there’s some sort of incentive to help offset some costs, again, of those taxpayer dollars, because at the end of the day, that’s more money that gets into a classroom, gets into a facility that we need, and covers those costs,” Jaquez said.

Many of the questions from lawmakers centered on safety and logistics.

Sen. Siah Hemphill (D-Silver City) asked officials from Las Cruces public schools about any emergency plans that are in place if buses broke down in rural areas, with limited cell phone service – or if the electric buses failed to charge.

Jacquez responded that Las Cruces schools were working on a plan for emergency scenarios with the bus contractor. He also said the school district is asking El Paso Electric about rolling blackouts and other electrical concerns that could stall school bus operations.

“We’re looking to answer ‘if we were to not have power to these buses, then what’s plan b for us?’ because we don’t have spare buses that we’re able to jump on, sometimes,” he said.

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.