A Sound Business Decision… or More Virtue Signaling?

Recharging an electric school bus. Photo credit: Dominion Energy

Governor Ralph Northam has pledged to put $20 million from the Volkswagen diesel-emissions settlement toward the purchase of zero-emission school buses, the governor’s office has announced. The program, to be administered by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), will help local school systems to replace about 75 diesel-fueled buses and reduce CO2 emissions by 36 million pounds per year, the administration says.

It’s a nice little feel-good story. But, as I attempted to conduct some elementary cost-benefit analysis, I found that the numbers don’t make sense. And even if they did, there are probably more cost-effective ways to save the planet from the climate apocalypse.

Here’s how it works. DEQ will reimburse local school systems up to $265,000 per electric bus, which is approximately the difference in cost between purchasing a diesel-powered bus and an electric bus. While the electric buses can save $2,000 a year in fuel costs and $4,400 and maintenance, the extra up-front investment is a big hurdle. The new program eliminates that barrier, creating financial savings for the locality and a reduction in CO2 emissions as well.

So far, so good. How much in CO2 reductions will Virginia get from that extra $20 million? States the governor’s press release: “Replacing 75 buses with all-electric school buses results in a lifetime savings of 670,000 pounds nitrogen oxide, approximately 41,000 pounds of particulate matter population [sic], and 36 million pounds of greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions.”

Thirty-six million pounds translates into 18,000 tons.

Now, let’s assume that, instead of putting our money into electric buses, purchased carbon offsets by other means available online, such as reforesting Mexican rain forest or building solar facilities in India. According to What It Costs, a ballpark estimate of carbon offsets runs about $5.50 to $29 per ton of CO2. According to Energy Sage, the cost can vary between $.10 and $44.80 per ton, with an average cost of about $3.30 per ton. How many tons of CO2 could Virginia buy with its $20 million Volkswagen settlement by purchase offsets in the open market? If we assumed a cost in the middle/high end of the range, say, $25 per ton, the answer would be 800,000 tons! (If we assumed $3.30 per ton, the figure would be more than 6 million tons.)

To be fair, electric vehicles also would reduce emissions from other pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulates. Those reductions would have some monetary value. Furthermore, if integrated into the electric grid, the bus batteries would have yet another value as a source of battery storage.

A Dominion Energy plan to put 50 electric school buses on the road (and 1,000 buses by 2025) by 2020 makes an instructive comparison.  Reports the Washington Post:

The bus batteries will serve as a resource for the power grid; 1,000 buses will produce enough energy to power about 10,000 homes for five hours, according to Dominion.

“Most school buses are kept in a centralized location, so from a grid support standpoint we can have a concentrated amount of battery storage in a specific location,” [said Chief Innovation Officer Mark Webb]. “You know it will be there when you need it — for planning, that’s super useful.

Like the Northam administration, Dominion is paying school districts the difference in cost between the cost of a diesel bus and electric bus. But in theory  Dominion can gain an economic value not available to the Commonwealth by being able to draw upon the electricity stored in school bus batteries during periods of peak electricity demand, thus saving the expenses of more expensive electricity sources. It’s not clear from the Washington Post article, however, how such draw-downs would work or how much money they would save.

Virginia school systems operate about 17,000 buses in all, and replace about 1,000 yearly.

Update: I made some basic, unforgivable arithmetical errors in the calculations in the original post. I have corrected them. My basic point remains the same, although I must retract my snarkiness.

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23 responses to “A Sound Business Decision… or More Virtue Signaling?”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    In the fullness of time we’ll see how this works in coordination with what Dominion announced last month, its own initiative to use (it appears) ratepayer money to subsidize local EV schools buses, which will be networked and used as battery storage when not delivering children (?!). Plenty bumping around in the dark….

    Moving away from diesel is a positive step. I’ve got no problem with swapping out diesel with its fumes and particulates for EV. But not long ago natural gas as fuel was the savior, and I assume there are hybrid options, and real market forces should be determining what technology is best, not subsidies – especially when my money might be used to tip the scale in favor of one energy form (all EV….)

    I told you the “hostility” between the two Big Ds — Dominion and Democrats – was just a temporary election shadow play…

  2. Normally EV makes sense for smaller vehciles, whereas nat gas, H2 FCV starts to be the better choice for larger vehciles. But I am not sure about school buses. Diesel emissions are probably a eco-problem so converting the school bus fleet to anything but diesel would probably be a step in the right direction, funds permitting. If there is data on diesel school bus emissions, I tend to think it would not be pretty looking numbers. Fairfax has a huge school bus fleet biggest in nation I think.

    Diesel is relatively good MPG good fuel efficiency, but bad otherwise. Perhap diesel fuel cost is higher now too.

  3. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I have a better idea. Lets spend the $20 million teaching these kids in these buses and schools, actually teaching them, how to read well, and write well, and speak well, and do arithmetic well, like how to add, and subtract, and do long division.

    And while our kids are reading on buses and in schools, lets give them good books to read, instead of garbage from today’s ideologues and fads, and instead let them read books that broaden, deepen and sharpen their vocabulary, and that give kids the opportunity to learn the truth about their country and its civilization, and who the key people and things are in history, like who Mosses and George Washington are, what the Magna Carta is, what the law is and means, and the US Constitution happened, and how these people and things all changed history for the better of their country and their world, and must be kept alive, and well, and thriving.

    And why don’t we give our kids a chance to learn and gain skills in their own emotional intelligence, so they know how to deal with other people of all kinds face to face, and so they can learn not only about other people and understand other people, but also how to deal with, respect, and work with other people successfully, and cooperatively.

    Why don’t we fix these real problems with our kids, who are our future, and drop all the nonsense and small ball crap, including hugely expensive buses. Why our growing obsessions with little things, when our real problems are growing and threatening our nation. After all, the majority of our kids in most places fail in reading, writing, speaking, and arithmetic and, to an alarming degree, our kids are increasingly failing to be able to succeed, and even cope with the real world.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    This is one of those things folks can Monday-morning quarterback to death… and it’s good that it’s going to one-time expenditures.

    In the end – schools are only going to do this on their own – if and only if it’s more cost-effective than diesel over the life of the vehicle so perhaps what this is really is a pilot project to generate experiential data.

    I also agree with TBILLs comment about natural gas but apparently that’s old thinking. Volvo which has turned into a major manufacture of tractor trailer trucks is putting it’s money here:

    Volvo to Spend $400 Million on Virginia Truck Factory, Add Electric Line

    Volvo Group will invest $400 million to expand and upgrade its heavy-duty truck plant in New River Valley, Va.

    The investment will add equipment and make changes that will allow for production of both diesel and electric trucks.

    Volvo will use electric powertrain components from its Swedish parent to refit its popular VNR model as an electric truck. It plans to launch sales of the electric truck in 2020.

    “This investment is another sign of our confidence in that future,” said Peter Voorhoeve, president of Volvo Trucks North America. “And it will help us prepare for even more exciting products – powered by both diesel and electric drivetrains.” Volvo will continue to sell the VNR as a diesel-powered model.”

    sorta sounds like a “straddle” !

    but this is also an example of how making choices about the environment is not so simple and even those on the same side on the goal will disagree on how to get there.

    FINALLY -when it comes to school expenditures per pupil – it INCLUDES things like transportation costs, maintenance and operation costs – including energy use. Spotsylvania Schools switched all the lights in al it’s schools to LEDs – because the company that sold them – guaranteed that lowered electricity costs would more than pay for them – and it DID. That results in MORE funding for instruction for kids!

    1. I do not think natural gas for buses is out-of-date idea, but you need a fleet of buses to make it work. So if you give a school one or two natural gas buses, it may not make sense. Amount of CO2 generated by electric bus may not be less than diesel bus, given diesel is relatively high MPG efficent fuel for big vehciles, and electric becomes ineffiicent as vehicle size gets bigger and considering also winter impacts.

      One misleading advantage that electric vehicles have is that advocates always quote the peak efficiency. The actual amount of electric power consumed is not measused, and is undoubtedly much higher in the real world (winter etc have serious impact). Cars and trucks do not have this reporting advantage, because the gallons of fuel consumed in the real world is generally well known. Tesla measures power used for Tesla autos, but that is secret info. If we knew that data I think it would prove my point on how much power they really consume.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        TBILL – wouldn’t you know how much power they consume when you recharge them?

        Also – natural gas versus electric for big trucks… Big trucks could have gone to natural gas a long time ago and instead stayed with diesel, right?

        Take other truck fleets, like the Post Office or UPS or Fed Ex – all gas fleets right?

        I try to validate claims and impressions that might have – with real world data… we simply do not have fleets of heavy vehicles using natural gas.. no?

        1. Certainly city bus fleets for nat gas. I am under the impression quite a few eg; trash truck companies are converting over to natural gas, but I do not have the papers on it.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            I think natural gas is mainly limited to urban areas – stop/go relatively short miles – and apparently EV is “better” , cheaper than nat gas? I dunno… but even for cars – you see EV but almost no nat gas … a few hydrogen………

            All of this was going on – BEFORE the greenhouse gas thing… it was more about urban air quality.

  5. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    I think spending the money in Virginia makes sense. Electric vehicles seem to be the trend but they aren’t without emissions since they are powered by electricity generated most likely with fossil fuels. Perhaps, hybrids would be a better investment.

    Understanding the importance of the Magna Carta. Wow, wouldn’t that be novel?

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Electric vehicles are not “green” unless they use non-fossil fuels to re-charge. The basic premise is that to be truly “green” , EVs need to refuell (re-charge) from green energy sources.

    The reason EVs are sought after in urban environments is that – regardless of how they are re-charged – fossil fuels or renewables – they have “zero” emissions in the urban area. But what they are doing is in effect exporting the pollution to rural areas – not unlike how electricity in general is generated – usually outside of the urban areas – whether it’s for urban infrastructure or EVs.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Valid points but I also think it’s politicians virtue signaling. Aren’t greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse gas emissions wherever they are emitted?

      But again, it’s better to spend the money in Virginia than overseas.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        “virtue-signaling” is just another right-wing talking point … to deflect the real issue IMHO.

        “green” has been all along before the Global Warming thing – about less pollution – more than just greenhouse pollution. All this urban stuff about “non-attainment” areas, EPA “clean car”, and HOV and to include natural gas buses, etc – all of that was about the efforts to reduce pollution in the urban areas.

        And that was before the right-wing was having fun with “virtue signaling”.. and “identity politics” and all that rot!

  7. J. Abbate Avatar

    You may charge an EV from a solar array on a roof or from an adjacent field. I have two neighbors in Buckingham County doing that right now. Your home and car can be charged and powered from the same solar panels at 0 cost once the panels are paid for, usually within 7 – 10 years. You would then have a working asset (solar) for up to 40 years with minimal maintenance costs.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      How many panels are needed? Interesting idea.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Yes. The problem is that the upfront costs are so large that most folks are not financially able to do it.

      The same is true of what are known as in-ground Heat-Pumps that get their heat from the ground and not the air – they are 2-3 times as much as an air heat pump but 2-3 times more efficient.

      There is no one silver bullet answer to reducing emissions and few are gong to be able to quickly reduce their power consumption – overnight – but over time – people can cut their power use substantially – and that’s a worthwhile goal especially in the US where we use 3, 4, 5 times the power as most people in other countries do.

      People in third world countries – often do without electricity AND they heat and cook by burning wood or other polluting fuels.

      People on the 10,000 inhabited islands use diesel fuel for electricity.

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        All those islands are doomed anyway. Ask Greta.

  8. The strong point of gaso/diesel is high energy density. Can you run a vehicle with electrons instead? Yes. How many electrons do you need? A whole lot of electrons and big battery. These buses presumably need some kind of high powered charging station too. Its great to think about having a solar panel charge a car. Is it possible? Yes. But that’s a lot of power probably the panels are on the grid and the grid is charging.

  9. That should be 18,000 tons not 18?

    1. You’re right! My bad. I have amended the post to reflect the correction an dial down the snark. Thanks.

  10. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner


    Another sign of the coming EV future….Continental AG phasing out a plant in Newport News that makes components for internal combustion engines. Those of us who have been highly skeptical of Dominion’s demand projections need to be sure this is in the equation, but it is also important to understand this really makes grid reliability about ten times more important. All the vehicles fail in a long power outage?

    1. I do not understand what Continental makes but I am not seeing this is due to EVs, are you?

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        “The company had told workers in August that it planned to shift its business and research dollars with the rest of the automotive industry to electric technology but didn’t have specific plans at the time.” Pretty clear. My daughter in law worked at that plant for many years.

        1. But electric technology can mean for example making a water pump electric motor vs. belt or hydraulic.

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