RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Some Virginia school districts are getting money to buy new electric buses, but the shift away from fossil fuels is still in the early stages.

U.S. Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner announced in a press release this week that $30 million from the infrastructure law passed by Congress last year will fund 81 zero-emission buses in 12 Virginia school divisions.

Virginia Department of Education Spokesperson Charles Pyle said the state currently has 226 electric school buses that are either in service or on order. That’s roughly 1.4% of the state’s 16,000 school buses, according to Pyle.

Bobby Monacella, a lead advocate with Mothers Out Front, has been pushing for change in Virginia and other states for years.

“To make this change seems like a no-brainer because it’s also a health issue for our kids. Those black fumes that come out of the back of the bus can cause asthma. Some of those things are cancer causing,” Monacella said.

Monacella said cleaner buses have a bigger price tag up front but the investment would save schools money in maintenance and fuel long-term. It would also help the environment by reducing carbon emissions.

“My kids are scared about climate change. It is heartbreaking to see how scared they are about it, and I’m scared for their future. So that is really what motivates me,” Monacella said.

Monacella said the federal funding is a great start but the Virginia General Assembly could do more to speed up the transition.

It has been a bumpy road so far.

A law passed in 2021 created a state grant fund to help localities cover the cost of electric school buses but legislators never put any money in the pot.

Former Delegate Mark Keam, who sponsored the bill, said he introduced a more ambitious proposal in 2020 but it was shot down.

“The budget came out a little bit too high and so my colleagues said it’s a great idea but I don’t think we can afford it,” Keam said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t come up with the state funds directly but the intent and the purpose behind this is for the state to stand behind this idea.”

Keam said creating the grant fund better positioned the state to take advantage of other possible funding streams in the future. He said non-profits and the private sector could contribute, in addition to the federal government.

In 2019, Dominion Energy laid out a plan that, with state approval, would’ve expanded a pilot program to bring 1,000 electric school buses online by 2025. Dominion set a goal of “having 50 percent of all diesel bus replacements be electric by 2025 and 100% by 2030.”

Legislation that would’ve given Dominion the green light to oversee the expansion failed in the General Assembly. It would’ve allowed the utility to recover program costs by raising energy bills.

“If you’re going to open up school buses to be electrified using private funds then no one company, especially a utility that already has a monopoly, should have the first crack at that,” Keam said.

In an email on Friday, a spokesperson for Dominion said they have helped 15 localities put 50 electric buses on the road so far. Dominion says they are expanding to add 73 more electric buses by partnering with school districts who received Clean School Bus Program rebates using Volkswagen Settlement funding.   

“We are continuing our support by providing fast-charging solutions to help school districts that receive funding from the EPA Clean School Bus Program by providing utility coordination, including grid upgrades, construction, and charger installation. Dominion Energy will also cover the maintenance of the charger for 15 years and 50% of the cost of the battery warranty,” the email furthered.

Governor Glenn Youngkin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on Friday.

In the past, Youngkin has been critical of a law that will effectively stop the new sale of gas cars in Virginia by 2035. It’s not clear if Youngkin would support expanding state funding for electric buses.

The following school districts are receiving federal funding for new electric buses, according to Senator Kaine’s office.

  • $7,900,000 for Carroll County Public Schools for the purchase of 20 buses.
  • $1,185,000 for Charlotte County Public Schools for the purchase of three buses.
  • $790,000 for Floyd County Public Schools for the purchase of two buses.
  • $1,185,000 for Franklin City Public Schools for the purchase of three buses.
  • $790,000 for Galax City Public Schools for the purchase of two buses.
  • $1,185,000 for Goochland County Public Schools for the purchase of three buses.
  • $1,580,000 for Grayson County Public Schools for the purchase of four buses.
  • $790,000 for Lee County Public Schools for the purchase of two buses.
  • $9,875,000 for Lynchburg City Public Schools for the purchase of 25 buses.
  • $790,000 for Nelson County Public Schools for the purchase of two buses.
  • $3,950,000 for Powhatan County Public Schools for the purchase of 10 buses.
  • $1,975,000 for Wise County Public Schools for the purchase of five buses