The Bulletin

State begins rolling out $20 million in Volkswagen money for electric school buses

By: - May 12, 2021 12:02 am

A school bus in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

Although plans to replace Virginia school districts’ diesel buses with electric ones have foundered in the General Assembly, the state is moving forward with bus electrification plans using money from Volkswagen’s so-called “Dieselgate” scandal. 

On Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam’s office announced it would make $20 million of the state’s Volkswagen settlement funds available for school districts to electrify their bus fleets. 

“We have an existing pot of money we’re working to get out the door as soon as possible, and a school bus program is a perfect fit,” said Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director Chris Bast. Furthermore, he added, the funding “provides an opportunity that is no-strings-attached that is different than a lot of the other funding opportunities out there for school buses.”

Virginia received $93.6 million through a settlement between Volkswagen and the federal government over allegations that the company installed devices in vehicles between 2009 and 2016 to cheat emissions tests in order to evade Clean Air Act emissions limits.

Virginia DEQ, which is responsible for administering the settlement funds, has so far earmarked $82 million for transportation electrification projects. 

Northam pledged to put $20 million of those funds toward electric school buses in 2019. That amount is expected to cover the extra costs of replacing about 75 diesel buses with electric ones.  

Electrifying school bus fleets “is another important part of our comprehensive approach to reducing climate pollution,” said DEQ Director David Paylor in a statement.

Transportation emissions are responsible for almost half of Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions, one of the primary drivers of climate change. 

According to data provided by the governor’s office, approximately 99 percent of Virginia’s public school buses use diesel. 

Many are also aging. Per the Virginia Department of Education’s 2019-2020 inventory, nearly 5,000 of the commonwealth’s almost 17,000 diesel school buses are model year 2006 or older. 

In rolling out the Volkswagen funding, “there will be priority given to the oldest diesel buses out there,” DEQ air quality planner Angela Conroy said during a Monday presentation on the program. 

The $20 million will be disbursed in rounds, with $9.25 million now available for districts to replace diesel buses with electric ones and $750,000 allotted for propane-powered buses. 

The state will cover the price difference between an electric or propane bus and an equivalent diesel bus, with the districts paying what they would otherwise have paid for a diesel replacement. 

During the 2020 and 2021 General Assembly sessions, proposals to establish Dominion Energy-led programs that could have put as many as 1,200 electric school buses on Virginia roads failed despite extensive behind-the-scenes efforts by top Democrats. Among other arguments, opponents objected to utility ratepayers funding electric school bus conversions.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists. She is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]