Report: Rural California Doesn't Want Electric Buses

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

California Governor Gavin Newsom has frequently mentioned his desire to see the region pivot to all-electric buses as quickly as possible. The Golden State already has a couple thousand on hand and leadership has issued a mandate that all newly purchased school buses need to be zero-emission vehicles by 2035. However, the plan hasn’t gone over well with rural communities and some are starting to make a lot of noise.

According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, people living in California’s northern rural school districts don’t see EVs working as school buses. While the daily pickup routine might be sufficient in most cases, residents have noted that these vehicles have to double as transport for sports teams and field trips.

There are certainly high-end examples that can easily cover a couple hundred miles between charges. But most all-electric buses are sitting closer to a maximum range of 150 miles. This becomes a problem when you consider the massive battery packs these vehicles use, as they’ll take far longer to recharge than smaller EVs.

The Los Angeles Times used Lassen High as an example, noting that the school had opted for a diesel-powered Blue Bird to ferry the girl’s volleyball team to and from matches located West Valley High School located 119 miles away. The route reportedly goes through Lassen National Forest, includes long stretches of road without any fuel stations or cellular service, and isn’t even the longest trip the team takes annually.

From LA Times:

In California’s vast northern rural school districts, with their mountain passes and long, snowy winters, the typical electric bus’ range is not nearly enough. West Valley is one of Lassen High’s nearest athletic opponents. One of the farthest, Yreka High, is 169 miles away.
Yet California is pushing schools to get rid of their air-polluting diesel buses and swap them for battery-powered ones.
In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation requiring all newly purchased or leased school buses in California to be zero-emission starting in 2035. Rural school districts can have up to 10 additional years to fulfill the requirement, if they can prove the vehicles are impractical for their routes and terrain.
But even that generous time frame is unworkable unless electric bus technology significantly improves, rural school leaders say.

Assuming EV technologies continue improving at their present pace and the infrastructure is there, your author sees no reason why rural school districts couldn’t make electric buses work in 20 years. But we haven’t seen EVs progressing anywhere near as quickly as the industry originally promised and an argument should still be made that the government would be best served by having districts purchase whatever vehicles suit their individual needs.

If EVs end up being the most practical and cost effective mode of transportation, they should win. However, the state has been so single minded on the issue that people are becoming resentful of the push toward electrification. Most of these EV requirements won’t even come into play for several years and many will probably be walked back as targets are revisited. But they’ve still managed to get people worked up today.

“The last thing we want to do is have kids stuck on the side of the road in a dead electric bus. Especially in the snow,” said Lassen Union High School District Superintendent Morgan Nugent.

“We want to do our best for our environment. We live up here in the mountains. We want to see our resources protected. But we have to be realistic.”

Early examples of electric buses have also helped taint perceptions. Blue Bird actually began production of electric buses in 2020 offering a 120-mile range. Unfortunately, the first batch suffered from occasional motive problems and some customers even reported battery fires while charging. The company seems to have gotten a handle on things since then. However, other companies are still struggling and Blue Bird has been crystal clear that the range of electric buses can vary depending on climate, load, and other external factors.

While Northern California’s concerns about the limitations of modern EVs are indeed valid, locals are reportedly tired of being called “climate change deniers” over addressing those concerns. As the region tends to swing more Republican than the rest of the state, residents feel like they’re at odds with policies being pushed by Democrats that aren’t exposed to the needs of rural communities.

There’s also some animosity in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom having flown to China in October to meet with President Xi Jinping, and several other Chinese officials, to discuss all-electric buses, battery storage solutions, and carbon markets. Critics argue that the state’s aggressive push toward electrification is benefiting China more than California residents.

But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus.

“It’s even more important for rural areas because they’re on the bus longer,” he said, adding that the timeline offers schools plenty of time to make the switch to electric.

Ting also stated that he thinks Northern California school districts “just don’t like being told what to do.”

Still, the extension for rural communities was not in the original version of Assembly Bill 579. Assemblywoman Megan Dahle, a Republican from Lassen County’s Bieber, had to push for it with regional allies. She believes that electric buses would be idyllic if the technology worked for rural communities and doesn’t want school districts to commit to something before EVs have improved.

Assuming it does improve, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) says rural districts will be prioritized to receive government funding to buy zero-emission vehicles. The state already offers massive government grants to just about anyone interested in going electric. But hold-out communities are starting to get extra attention with serious consideration being given on how to improve EV charging infrastructures away from urban hubs.

California has already spent over $1 billion to modernize school bus fleets, by pivoting away from diesel, and plans on using an additional $1.8 billion over the next five years to further expand upon the state’s charging infrastructure and zero-emission fleets.

[Image: Captive Cookie/]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 87 comments
  • Haze3 Haze3 on Dec 11, 2023

    EV buses will fit most rural school use cases. They will be better for health, the environment and maintenance costs. There will be some conversion head-aches b/c change is hard.

    Where EV's are challenged (e.g. volleyball), keep some diesels around b/c "duh".

    Clicked and responded... TTAC red-meat wins again!

  • Probert Probert on Dec 11, 2023

    BYD makes a school bus with 150 miles of range, and they manufacture it in California. The other advantages are: They can recharge between runs, and can do so in about 2 hours. They can provide energy to the school during peak times to save costs. etc etc.

    Rural does have its issues - but having a couple diesels, or hybrids, in the fleet for the occasional long team journey would seem possible. We sent men to the moon and all. Aren't we the land of the bold and exceptional?

  • Wjtinfwb Funny. When EV's were bursting onto the scene; Tesla's, Volt's, Leaf's pure EV was all the rage and Hybrids were derided because they still used a gas engine to make them, ahem; usable. Even Volt's were later derided when it was revealed that the Volt's gas engine was actually connected to the wheels, not just a generator. Now, Hybrids are warmly welcomed into the Electric fraternity by virtue of being "electrified". If a change in definition is what it takes, I'm all for it. Hybrid's make so much sense in most American's usage patterns and if needed you can drive one cross-country essentially non-stop. Glad to see Hybrid's getting the love.
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