To Apply, Or Not? EPA’s New Clean School Bus Grant Program, Deciphered

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In general, I love the arms-wide-open, let’s-include-everyone approach to things, whether it’s a social gathering at my house, or a funding program for electric school buses (ESBs). Last year’s rebate program definitely had that spirit; the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean School Bus Program awarded almost one billion to 389 schools and Tribes in year one of its five-year, five billion dollar program.

EPA’s new funding round, though, goes deep instead of wide. I love this one too, because it’s designed to help whole fleets transition to electric, while easy, open-arms rebates are designed to get fleets started on ESBs. We need both. My criticisms (I’m a loyal critic) are that Round 2 still doesn’t allow repowers (see the STN article on repowers I coauthored with Tim Farquer) and out of 120 possible points, only five are for addressing bad air quality. On the positive side, the Environmental Justice section of the application (see second chart below) has 25 possible points, far more than any criteria. That’s good!

I’ve worked in both worlds: the governmental one that evaluates grant proposals and awards large sums of money, and the world that applies for those funds, wins them, and implements projects. (Winning is so fun, but less fun if your friends don’t win too.) In this newsletter I’ll bottom-line EPA’s Clean School Bus Program $400 million dollar 58 page Notice of Funding Opportunity, released April 24th. Even if this round isn’t for you, the information and links below may benefit you, because electric school buses are in all of our futures.

This article includes:

  • Where to apply and where the money will go
  • What’s different (and the same) in this funding round
  • Who should apply this round, and who shouldn’t
  • Who evaluates your application
  • When: deadline to apply is August 22, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. EST (8:59 p.m. PST)
  • How the points lie in scoring the proposals
  • Bonus: info on hydrogen fuel cell school buses (not funding related)
  • WASBE updates including new WASBE Speakers List (Women Accelerating School Bus Electrification)

I’m Alison Wiley here in Oregon, an ESB, equity, and inclusion geek. I’ve worked in low-carbon transportation since 2006, focusing on electric buses since 2016. My newsletters (housed here) make the complex topic of ESBs more accessible and understandable to a wide variety of readers. This newsletter is a member of the nationwide, equity-focused Alliance For Electric School Buses, but does not speak for the Alliance, nor for the World Resources Institute’s Electric School Bus Initiative, which partially funds this newsletter.

Where do you apply? At grants.gov, and sam.gov, same as the last round. Check now to make sure your account is current. It can take two weeks or more to create a new account.

Where will the money land? See map below:

Different From 2022 Rebate Round

  • Long, complex application
  • Competitive; scored with points
  • Third parties can apply directly for funds*
  • Min.25 buses max.100 for third parties
  • Min.15 buses max. 50 for school districts
  • Outcome to be small number (25-50) of large grants
  • Lots more eligible expenses: technical assistance, training, solar panels, battery storage, etc.
  • Winners decide how to divide their award between bus cost and charging cost
  • Winning applications may be publicly posted (I can’t imagine everyone being happy with this)

*Third parties include contractors (i.e. First Student), school bus dealers, Highland, school bus manufacturers and nonprofit student transportation associations. Third party applications must benefit at least four school districts, and document that the school bus fleets in their proposed projects want to do the project.

Same As 2022 Rebate Round

  • Priority to low income, rural and Tribal schools (2023 EPA list)
  • Free help in applying is available from nonprofits, manufacturers, Highland
  • Must apply via sam.gov and grants.gov
  • Winners receive funds prior to spending them (this supports equity)
  • Buses eligible for replacement: 2010 and older diesels that are fully operational
  • No fleet expansion
  • Replacement buses to be scrapped (to prevent further pollution)

Who should apply and who shouldn’t?

School bus fleets and third parties that are already operating ESBs and are oriented toward fleet transition should apply. Folks that are just “ESB curious” shouldn’t — but should apply for the next rebate round that EPA states it will release this fall. Rebate programs are all-comers, good for pilots, with short, non-competitive applications and winners typically chosen by lottery.

Who evaluates your application?

Your EPA Regional office, the same offices that have been running the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act programs for years. But they can’t answer your questions; they can only tell you to go the CSBP website and to pose questions via email to cleanschoolbus@epa.gov.

When? Deadline to apply is August 22, 2023, one minute before midnight Eastern (that’s 8:59 p.m. for Westerners like me).

How do the points lie? See pie chart below. Honestly, I think that winning applications will take tons of work. If I were applying I would block out 10 hours a week and get lots of help, including from my utility. I would ask multiple organizations for letters of support, then draft those letters for them to sign, making each letter highly specific to their perspective and their role in the project.To meet the 15-page maximum of the Project Narrative and prune, say, my 26-word sentences down to ten words, I’d use something like this guide to conciseness.

How To Learn More? Use EPA’s Events page to sign up for its upcoming grant webinars and to get the slides and recordings from the ones already completed (such as yesterday’s). See WRI’s comprehensive ESB resources here (especially for school bus fleets), and the Alliance has posted extensive resources (especially for advocates).

Hydrogen Fuel Cell School Buses: A Thing?

A prototype by Hyperion and Pegasus plans to enter the market in 2024 (STN). Are they a viable option? Here’s what I know:

  • Zero emissions, like battery-electric
  • Well proven in the public transit world
  • Unlike battery-electric, they perform head-to-head with diesel
  • 300-mile range means they could potentially work as activity buses
  • Unlike battery-electric, require massive, costly charging infrastructure upfront
  • They fuel about as quickly as diesel
  • Are suited to entire fleet transition, but not for pilot projects

It’s hard for me to envision HFCBs catching on in the school bus industry due to the million-dollar plus investment needed upfront for charging infrastructure. Few school districts seem to have that kind of money or political will. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong. Many thanks to Erik Bigelow, my former colleague at Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE, long-time experts on electric buses) for vetting this section.

Financial support for this newsletter is provided in part by the World Resources Institute. While the World Resources Institute may engage as a partner on content, it does not control, nor does it necessarily endorse, the contents of this newsletter.

By Alison Wiley (she/her/hers)
Electric School Bus Newsletter

alison@electricschoolbus.org

I am on the ancestral lands of the Multnomah, Chinook and Cowlitz peoples.
Whose land are you on?

 


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