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Electric school bus legislation stuck in neutral

SB 1380 (Lucas) would authorize Dominion Energy to implement projects to encourage the proliferation of electric school buses and charging infrastructure to reduce the use of traditional diesel school buses and help with electric grid stabilization. This is the second year this legislation has been filed after the previous iteration of this bill was defeated by the House of Delegates during the 2020 regular session. A pilot program was created in 2019 to bring 50 electric school buses to a number of localities within Dominion’s service area.

SB 1380 would expand the existing program to allow local school divisions to partner with Dominion to purchase up to 1,250 additional electric school buses. School divisions would be reimbursed for the purchase of the school buses and charging infrastructure. The use of electric school buses would serve as electric grid stabilizers by allowing the batteries needed to charge the buses to store and inject energy into the grid during periods of high demand when the buses are not being used for the transport of students. Dominion would be authorized to seek rate adjustments to cover the costs of implementing this program. The bill would also add electric school buses and their charging equipment to the list of certified pollution control equipment and facilities, which are exempt from state and local taxation.

Dominion claims that the benefits to students and localities of using electric school buses include interior school bus air quality six times better than a traditional diesel-fueled bus, 60 percent reduced operation and maintenance costs to localities, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Buses purchased through this program will be equipped with lap-and-shoulder belt occupant restraint systems, consistent with recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board. Though electric school buses and school buses equipped with shoulder restraints are generally more expensive to purchase than traditional school buses, Dominion has committed to offsetting the additional costs.

The bill has support from several school divisions and the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS). However, SB 1380 faces opposition from several environmental groups who have expressed equity concerns over Dominion recouping the costs of the projects from rate payers.

SB 1380 was reported by the House Labor and Commerce Committee, 15-5, after being amended to include several provisions requiring Dominion to pay a local prevailing wage rate for workers employed for the projects and establish certain hiring preferences. After going by for two days, the bill was amended on the House floor to reduce the number of school buses to 1,000, clarify that participation from local school divisions was optional, establish that the buses would be prioritized as vehicles for the transfer of students as opposed to batteries, and require that Dominion dedicate at least 25 percent of the buses to school divisions with high levels of poverty and low ambient air quality. The bill was defeated on a vote of 34-53, before it was reconsidered and again passed by for the day.

In the Senate, somewhat related, but entirely different legislation, which would establish an Electric Vehicle Grant Fund and Program to assist local school divisions with the replacement of diesel school buses, was reported with substitute language by the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, 12-4. HB 2118 (Keam) was conformed to the Committee to the language of SB 1380.

VACo Contacts: Jeremy R. Bennett and Joe Lerch, AICP

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