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The Essex Westford School District plans to apply for a pilot program that would provide funding to help replace two of its diesel-powered buses with electric ones (File photo).

The Essex Westford School District hopes to participate in a pilot program that would help it deploy two electric buses into its fleet.

The program is a partnership between the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation that will help two schools districts and one transit agency replace older diesel-powered buses with electric ones.

EWSD transportation manager Jamie Smith said the district plans to apply before the October 2 deadline. He called the program an exciting opportunity that aligns well with the district’s commitment to 100 percent renewable energy.

“It’s something that our community supports,” Smith said. “When I look at the traffic issues that we engage, especially at the Five Corners, if we could not have one of those three buses idling at that intersection for as long … that’s a reduction of impact on our environment.”

The push for more electric buses comes as officials around the country look to limit children’s exposure to exhaust from older diesel buses while also curbing the carbon emissions behind global warming.

But electric buses come with a lofty upfront price tag far beyond than their diesel counterparts: depending on the specifications, an electric school bus can cost up to $400,000 while an electric transit bus can run anywhere from $650,000 to nearly a million dollars, according to Stephanie Morse, a senior consultant with VEIC.

Enter the pilot program, which will cover that substantial price difference using funds from Vermont’s share of the Volkswagen emissions settlement, in which the company agreed to pay $2.9 billion into state funds after it was caught cheating on diesel emissions tests. Vermont’s share of the mitigation trust was $18.7 million.

Morse said the pilot program is the best possible use of the Volkswagen funds, and other states have announced similar plans, setting aside millions of dollars to facilitate bus replacements in the coming years.

Indeed, Vermont isn’t the only state looking to increase its electric bus fleet. California recently spent millions of dollars to purchase dozens of electric buses for school districts, while New York and Massachusetts have funded smaller projects, and many major cities have begun purchasing the buses for their mass transit fleets, the New York Times reports.

A goal of Vermont’s pilot program is to test the electric fleet’s reliability and performance, especially during a winter here, as media reports in recent years have shown some of the buses have struggled in colder temperatures.

VEIC says it has designed, implemented and evaluated multiple electric school and transit bus programs throughout New England, specializing in electric vehicle deployment in cold weather, rural areas.

VEIC asked prospective applicants to respond to a request for qualifications in August, which the organization used to assess their eligibility. It then invited eligible school and transit agencies to submit proposals, now due October 2, and will select applicants sometime next month, before working on agreements with the entities, Morse said.

Will Dodge, chairman of the Essex Energy Committee, said the committee recently learned about the program and believes it will benefit everyone. He said Essex has seen a recent influx of renewable energy projects and home weatherization projects but has yet to see a major shift on the transportation side, beyond some hybrid municipal vehicles.

“We thought a lot about the school district and … the buses that are bringing kids to or from school,” Dodge said. “If there was a way to convert those over to electric, that would have a pretty significant impact on the overall level of emissions and energy costs for the district.”

The committee advocated the selectboard to pass a resolution in support of EWSD participating in the program, and the measure passed unanimously at a recent meeting.

Dodge has ridden an electric bus before and said it felt just like a regular diesel-powered bus. “Expect it’s much quieter,” he said.

Smith, the transportation manager, said the district plans to apply in partnership with its busing contractor, Mt. Transit. The company owns most of the buses deployed in EWSD’s current fleet and may end up owning the electric vehicle, too, Smith said.

But he expected the district would own the charging station also paid for out of the program, which would allow EWSD to accommodate future electric buses if the initial launch proves successful.