For a Clean, Safe Ride to School, Electric Buses Get Straight A’s. Propane? Needs Improvement

School bus

GreenPower electric school bus parked in front of the West Virginia State Capitol building; Charleston, WV

By Ali DySard and Melody Reis

School districts around the country are considering a switch to buses that use less fuel, cost less, and, most importantly, provide safe and healthy trips to and from school. Only one option wins on each of these critical criteria: electric. They eliminate the dirty tailpipe emissions of diesel and other fossil fuel models that harm vulnerable lungs, they save money on fuel and maintenance costs and they can even increase the resilience of the local electric grid.

This clear choice is why the majority of the EPA’s Clean School Bus rebate program applications were for —and nearly 100% of the first round of funding went to — electric buses.

But old technology habits die hard, and propane bus manufacturers have allied with propane lobbyists to push school districts to consider their internal combustion buses. And they’re using some of the fossil fuel industry’s old bag of tricks to take on their electric rivals.

Unfortunately, the truth is not on their side and propane does not come out on top.

On Emissions, Only Electric Buses Get an A+

Today, nearly all of the nation’s 480,000 school buses burn diesel, which emits greenhouse gasses and air pollution that harms human health. That’s one of the primary reasons federal and, increasingly, state governments are investing in a transition to cleaner fleets. And when it comes to improving the air quality our children experience on their way to and from school, nothing compares to the advantages of going electric.

Propane may be cleaner than diesel, but that’s not saying much. Diesel is among the filthiest fuels on four wheels. In addition to climate pollution, diesel exhaust has been linked to a variety of negative health outcomes, including asthma and even cancer. In a similar vein, propane is a highly flammable, asphyxiating gas that, much like its fossil fuel brethren,  emits particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane into the environment. In fact, a study showed that in city and interstate driving, propane buses emitted more climate-harming carbon dioxide than diesel buses.

On the other hand, electric buses produce zero tailpipe emissions. That’s better for our lungs and the planet. No fossil fuel bus — including propane — can claim that.

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Safety and Reliability? Another perfect score

Electric school buses have an average range of at least 100 miles, well over the distance of a typical route. And their long dwell times and predictable routes allow for convenient overnight charging, which typically coincides with the lowest-priced energy giving school buses the battery charge they need to operate during the day. Just as passenger electric vehicles provide drivers with quick and powerful rides, electric motors deliver school bus drivers the power and responsiveness they need to carry our children safely and reliably.

Fossil fuel bus proponents have claimed electric buses pose new fire risks. But evidence demonstrates that internal combustion vehicles are more likely to catch fire than electric vehicles. Using NTSB data, researchers calculated the rate of fires for various vehicles. The rate of gasoline fires was 1,530 per 100,000 sold. Compare that to the rate of electric vehicle fires: 25 per 100,000 sold. In fact, electric school buses have safety features that make the risk of fire even more improbable, including sophisticated battery temperature controls, weather-durable casing and vehicle design that makes battery damage less likely.

Economic and Community Benefits

Electric school buses are cheaper to operate and maintain compared to propane and diesel buses due to several factors. Electric buses have fewer moving parts and require less frequent maintenance, leading to reduced servicing expenses. Propane engines involve more complex systems, such as fuel injection and exhaust after-treatment, which can be costly to repair and maintain. Furthermore, electric buses have longer lifespans and lower maintenance requirements since they experience less wear and tear on components like engines and transmissions. Overall, these cost and maintenance advantages make electric school buses a more economical and sustainable choice for school districts, benefiting both their budgets and the environment.

Electric school buses offer significant fuel cost savings over propane buses due to their higher energy efficiency and the generally lower cost of electricity compared to propane. Fleet managers and taxpayers who transition to electric stand to see millions in savings over the total lifetime of the vehicle’s cost of ownership. Districts using electric school buses are seeing cost savings of $2,000 on fuel and $4,400 in maintenance per bus each year.

While some school districts are currently seeing inflated pricing, we anticipate costs to come down over the next few years as the market expands.


Additionally, electric buses offer school districts an advantage no other technology can match: their large batteries and predictable schedules make them perfect candidates for bidirectional charging, which allows bus batteries to power homes, schools, and critical facilities during grid emergencies and power outages.

By sending energy back to the grid and directly to buildings, they can power heaters, air conditioners, refrigerators and medical devices — and even keep the lights on at critical facilities during emergencies. The charging patterns of electric buses take advantage of lower-cost energy at night, further reducing fuel costs. And during peak demand periods (like hot summer days when school’s out), buses can make money by selling power back to the grid.

A Smart Choice with Available Funding

Admittedly, investing the upfront costs necessary to purchase new bus fleets is a big decision for school districts and local leaders. But federal and state programs now offer historic funding that can nearly eliminate the up-front costs of going electric.

More than $5 billion in grants and rebates are available for vehicle purchases, charging infrastructure and workforce development. Another $7.5 billion will fund 500,000 new public charging stations across the country, which will supplement private and depot charging stations. Many states are also funding the transition to electric school buses. For example, Illinois and Florida are allocating a portion of their Volkswagen settlement money to electric school buses, and Maryland has set target dates for their transition to electric school buses.

Various campaigns and programs are supporting this transition, like the all-inclusive fleet leasing model started by Highland Electric and other federal grant programs contained within the Inflation Reduction Act, such as the Clean Heavy-Duty Vehicle Program and commercial vehicle tax credits.

In short, electric school buses aren’t just a part of our future — they are a viable option today and the best solution for school districts seeking to improve the health of their children and communities.  No other option comes close.

Melody Reis is the Senior Legislative and Regulatory Policy Manager at Moms Clean Air Force, an affiliate of EDF.

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