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Flawed Electric School Bus (ESB) Program Barreling Down Old Dominion Highway


By A Siegel

Let’s get some facts on the table first.

  • Electrification of school buses should be fast-tracked across the United States due to huge and multi-faceted benefit streams;
  • While a “no-brainer” path forward, significant obstacles exist for mass ESB deployments;
  • Virginia is well positioned to take a leading role in ESB deployment.
Moving from Diesel to Electric School Buses has numerous and significant payoff streams …

In the Virginia legislature, on its last day, there is pressure to drive through Senator Louise Lucas’ SB1380. A short-hand of that legislation: it is Dominion Energy-written legislation that maximizes Dominion Energy profits while minimizing the role and power of public entities in decisionmaking about the nature of a public project.

As Ivy Main put it, Electric School Buses Would Be Good For Virginia, But It Has To Be Done Right, and SB1380 simply doesn’t do it right.

  • It mandates that ESBs are “in the public interest”.
    • While, in truth, ESBs are “in the public interest” in a commonly understood manner for most people, this is a powerful term in Virginia law.
    • Using this term drastically constrains the State Corporation Commission’s ability to provide oversight of a program, puts projects directly into the utility rate base, and enables program management that maximizes (well past the point of reasonableness) profits.
    • E.g., while writ large, a program very much worth pursuing, declaring it “in the public interest” will make almost certainly make this a significantly more expensive program than necessary and lead to higher costs for Virginians and higher (than appropriate) guaranteed profitability for Dominion for decades to come.
  • Puts public decisionmaking directly into a private entity’s essentially unilateral control. Two examples of potential issues:
    • This is potentially well over $4 billion of public procurement yet many legitimate issues of public interest (such as the potential to use a large-scale program to create ESB manufacturing and/or other job-creation opportunities) are not incorporated into the legislation.
    • Dominion has mandated that all school buses bought through its program must have seat belts.
      • While, superficially, this might sound like a tremendous safety move, the research about real-world experiences raises significant questions about whether — due to systems-of-systems’ impacts — there are actual safety benefits.
      • And, questionable (if any) seat-belt safety benefits come at a significant financial (ballpark of $10,000 per bus which means over $900 of guaranteed profits for Dominion year-in, year-out, for every ESB) cost along with significant operational implications (seat-belts reduce bus capacity and slow operations).
      • School bus seat belts are a public-policy issue that should go through government decision-making processes, weighing the public good, and not be mandated by a private entity whose profitability will be boosted via it’s unilateral (and opaque to the public) decision-making.

There are many other challenges with this bill, such as giving Dominion essentially unilateral control over ESB batteries in a way that makes clear that grid benefits (and Dominion profitability) are given prioritization over all other benefit streams.

To be clear, ESB deployment merits massive acceleration. While ESBs might have been hard to justify even a few years ago, plunging battery prices and other advances in the industry have made the financial case a “no-brainer” (while massively reducing risks of what was an uncertain and unknown technology space).

Also, involving electric utilities with such projects makes a tremendous amount of sense. (And, to be clear, that includes that utilities should be able to profit reasonably from their roles in and with ESB deployment and operations–reasonable, rather than excess, profitability.) Utilities can use their financial power to address the “upfront cost” challenge (which is what they do, essentially every day, with power plant and transmission line investments). And, utility close interaction with ESB deployment can enable energy grid resiliency (the importance of which were just dramatically demonstrated in Texas) while easing a path toward significant deployment of V2G (vehicle-to-grid) technologies and systems for even greater grid (and vehicle owner) benefit streams.

It is past the 11th hour in the Virginia legislature.

Simply put, SB1380 should not become law. Its problems are just too serious and costly.

However, ESBs are a critical arena for making progress due to all the real and significant benefit streams — for all stakeholders (other than, for example, oil companies, diesel distributors, and diesel-engine manufacturers). Putting off ESB decision-making for yet another year, after failures in the 2020 legislature, simply is not “in the public interest”.

Thus, with the legislative clock at 23:59 with an end at midnight, a hope that the legislature can find a last-minute compromise to mandate a private-public research team (commission) to conduct a 90-day project to develop legislation that will better balance public-private interests. And, to have materials to inform legislators for a short special session in perhaps June where this could be passed into law for Governor Northam’s signature.



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