by A Siegel
To address climate change, boost economic performance, and increase energy resiliency, we must electrify everything. As part of this, electrifying U.S. school buses is a particularly beneficial move that can and should occur rapidly.
With Dominion Energy’s and Governor Northam’s announcements of electric school bus (ESB) demonstration projects last year, Virginia seemed truly on the cusp of being the national leader in ESBs, with the real potential to radically change the industry, while bringing huge benefits (improved student health and performance; reduced pollution; better service; improved grid resiliency; reduced costs; job creation) to the Commonwealth and its citizens.
Entering Virginia’s legislative session, with multiple bills (all meriting improvement – sigh), it appeared likely that there would be some form of reasonable compromise that would create a legal structure for Virginia to set off a path to electrifying school transportation at a reasonable (even if not as fast as appropriate) pace. Regrettably, this is not how the session progressed.
Writ large, other than Dominion lobbyists, relevant interest groups and experts seemed to have been sitting on the sidelines on this one. (Due, almost certainly in large part, to the energy required for negotiating and securing passage of the Clean Energy Act.) Rather than strengthening and improving ESB-related legislation, the legislature’s final hours will have open for consideration a bill that seemingly came via dictation from Dominion lobbyists. This bill, Senator Lucas’s SB1096, subordinates public and ratepayer interest to Dominion executive and shareholder interests.
- Restricts regulatory oversight authorities on Dominion’s decision-making about buses and charges to the ratepayer for the program through defining it as “in the public interest”. (paragraph E)
- Prioritizes, above all else, Dominion’s interests in decision-making about which school districts will get ESBs by solely identifying “locational benefits that the school buses’ storage batteries are expected to bring“. (B.4) [Note: this is an example of how this bill weakens the situation. HB75, for example, had this language when originally introduced but with engagement with the sponsor from concerned groups and individuals, this was deleted. The original version of SB1096, from 5 March, didn’t have it but for some reason the clause was added back in.]
- Mandates (reflecting Dominion’s questionable priorities) “active lap-and-shoulder belt occupant restraint system” for every ESB (b.8), at a cost of $10,000 per bus (or $12.5 million across a 1250 ESB demonstration project), even though neither Virginia nor the Federal government require this on buses (only one Virginia school district requires this), nor does analysis appear to justify this high cost to school districts.
- Has uncertain (left open for future negotiation) safeguards against Dominion mismanaging ESB batteries and leaving school systems’ stranded without student transportation. (B.5)
- Creates a structure that will enable Dominion to dictate terms for electrifying all 17,000 of Virginia’s school buses — even if actual ‘well-regulated’ market capitalism could provide (far) better solutions.
- Does not have
- a mandate for analysis and assessment of ESB cost-benefit streams nor of ESB program deployment;
- prioritization of societal benefit streams (such as public health, environmental justice, …) in deployment decision-making;
- safeguards against excess Dominion profiteering;
- provide for real public entity visibility over Dominion’s cost structures and internal decision-making related to what will, eventually, be $Bs of public-entity investment streams.
Prior to and amid the legislative session, ESB proponents (including me) saw real potential for working with Dominion to come out with win-win-win legislation that make this more of a public-private partnership, potentially secure greater benefits for the Commonwealth (such as ESB manufacturing), open paths for accelerating ESB deployment even faster than Dominion called for and outside Dominion’s service area, and all while providing for Dominion making reasonable (rather excess) profits through a market-driving Virginia ESB deployment.
Sigh, that is not the case.
Instead, in its waning hours, the General Assembly will be left with an epitome of the Virginia Way: a Dominion Energy-written bill that will subordinate public and ratepayer interest to enabling excess profiteering, and a private entity to dictate on issues (like school bus restraints) that truly should be made by informed public servants (elected and otherwise) working on behalf of public interest, not private shareholders.
I am pained. To tackle the climate crisis, we must electrify everything — fast. As an energy/climate/business issues analyst, a concerned citizen, and a parent, I am very well aware that electric school buses represent an extremely high-payoff ‘electrify everything’ opportunity. As a Virginian, I was excited about the potential not just for Virginia to be a real leader in making this a reality but for the Commonwealth to leverage the choice to be a leader for creating thousands of high-quality manufacturing jobs (potentially as economic development in coal-industry dependent communities). I was enthused. And, now I am despondent.
When it comes to SB1096, when the Speaker asks the Delegates “Shall the bill pass“, regrettably, the answer should be a resounding NO!