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South Carolina Emerges as a Leader in Electric School Buses

The state has been awarded nearly $60 million in federal funding to aid in the transition to electric school buses, making it a leader in the country, despite a lukewarm embrace by the state’s congressional delegation toward public policy advancing EVs.

A Proterra assembly plant in Greenville, S.C., builds electric transit buses.
Submitted Photo: Proterra
The opportunity to save money in vehicle operations is prompting South Carolina to embrace electric school buses more quickly than many other states in the nation.

The Palmetto State aims to have 500 electric school buses in operation by 2027, said Mike Bullman, director of transportation at the South Carolina Department of Education.

“The biggest draw for the South Carolina Department of Education is the potential cost savings,” said Bullman. “Through leveraging grant funding, South Carolina has been able to increase and diversify its bus fleet without additional cost to the taxpayer. South Carolinians take the preservation of the state’s environment seriously, so we recognize that advantage as well.”

School districts across the U.S. operate nearly 480,000 school buses, transporting millions of students everyday. In South Carolina alone, more than 350,000 students ride a school bus. By the end of 2022, less than 1 percent of the national school bus fleet was electric. However, that statistic is quickly changing. A report by the firm MarketsandMarkets anticipates the electric bus market in North America to be one of the most robust.

Major pieces of federal legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act are helping to transition these buses from internal combustion engines to electric motors. South Carolina has been awarded some $58 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to help purchase some 152 buses — the third-highest award in the nation.

“We have now become, in eight years, one of the most modern bus fleets in the nation, cutting the average age of our school buses in half. And with this award today, we can add another accolade,” said Molly Spearman, state superintendent of education, speaking at a press event at the Orangeburg Consolidated School District in November 2022.

The state is also quickly becoming home to a sizable corner of the electric vehicle industry. Proterra, a major maker of electric buses, operates a manufacturing campus in Greenville. Greenlink Transit, the local transit provider, is steadily adding e-buses to its fleet. Some 60 percent of the transit bus fleet in Clemson — just outside of Greenville — is also electric. What's more, Redwood Materials, a lithium-ion battery recycling operation, just announced the development of another location in Charleston, S.C.

Gov. Henry McMaster recently introduced new initiatives to grow electric vehicle manufacturing even more, offering tax breaks and other incentives.

For all of this activity, South Carolinians have shown little interest in personal EVs. By early 2022, there were only 7,440 of the vehicles registered in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, which comes to about three vehicles per 1,000 people. South Carolina offers little in the form of incentives for consumers wanting to purchase an EV, and all of those electric buses to be rolling across South Carolina highways will not see any funding from the state, say officials.

And in fact, the majority of the South Carolina congressional delegation voted against both the infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act, a broad-reaching piece of legislation providing incentives for the domestic production of EVs and battery components, as well as other measures to address climate change and health care. Sen. Lindsey Graham voted in favor of the infrastructure bill, and voted against the Inflation Reduction Act. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the longtime Democratic congressman representing the 6th Congressional District in Columbia, voted for both pieces of legislation.

The new infrastructure law “came at a time when we’d been hearing talk for years about infrastructure,” said Clyburn, speaking at the Orangeburg School District in November. “We decided we were going to do infrastructure, but we were going to do it in a very modern way.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.