Electric school buses will soon start phasing into Western Massachusetts roads after Holyoke and Amherst were two of 17 districts in the state to be awarded portions of $42 million in federal funding that will enable districts to replace fossil-fueled school buses with cleaner electric models.

Holyoke will receive just over $7.2 million while Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools will receive $600,000 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean School Bus program. The efforts will help communities reduce climate pollution and the resulting health risks for children.

This funding for Holyoke Public Schools will fund the purchase of 21 electric school buses to serve students through a partnership with Highland Electric and Durham School Services. Durham is the primary vendor that provides transportation services to Holyoke Public Schools.

According to Holyoke Public Schools the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, or MassCEC, awarded the district $850,000 to Highland Electric to purchase a five electric school buses in May. The two grants, along with other secured funding, will provide sufficient funds for the district to purchase a total of 26 full-size school buses for the fleet used by Durham.

“HPS, Durham and Highland Electric will work together to use the recently announced federal and state funding to purchase a total of 26 Type D electric school buses, which will essentially electrify the entire fleet of diesel-powered “big yellow school buses” used to transport HPS students daily,” said the district through a statement in its June 7 newsletter. “The electric buses are expected to be delivered beginning in the 2025-26 school year.”

Amherst regional schools plan to use its new funding to buy three new electric school buses. The district is currently negotiating a lease agreement with Highland Electric Fleets, the transportation company that applied for the grant on the district’s behalf. The district also has one electric bus on order through another EPA program called the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, which was awarded in 2022 which is expected to be in operation before the most recent planned purchase.

Highland Electric Fleets is a company dedicated to the electrification of fleets. They manage the electrification process for clients, procuring and implementing the necessary infrastructure over long-term contract periods, usually of 10 to 15 years.

Amherst-Pelham’s Director of Facilities Rupert Roy-Clark told Reminder Publishing it will most likely be another two years before the latest buses are implemented because the district has to improve its charging infrastructure for the buses. He explained a dead battery for an electric bus quickly becomes an expensive replacement and the district struggled with its previous electric bus experiment without the proper high speed charging infrastructure in place.

“Operationally the main issues are how long does it take to charge it and how far can you go on a charge. What we learned is the system that we have took something like five hours to go from 0 to 100% charged. It didn’t work well for us,” Roy-Clark explained. “The high-speed infrastructure probably takes a year and a half to build so I don’t expect that we get those three leased buses, assuming we get an agreement done this summer — it could be two years before those three buses are online.”

Without the federal assistance, Roy-Clark said these initiatives and efforts would become much more complicated.

“An electric school bus costs 3.5 to 4 times what a fossil fuel bus cost and so its not really within reach of communities to spend that kind of money without subsidies,” Roy-Clark said.

The awards were also celebrated by Gov. Maura Healey as state efforts continue to be focused on transitioning to green energy.

“Every Massachusetts student deserves to breathe clean air, but diesel school buses are a major source of air pollution and can be harmful to young people’s health,” Healey said. “We’re thrilled to see so many Massachusetts communities win federal funding to make the switch to cleaner electric school buses. We’re grateful to the Biden-Harris administration for making this funding available and to Senator Warren and our Congressional delegation for their partnership and leadership.”

The EPA’s Clean School Bus program hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the environment as well as the harmful emissions inhaled by students and staff. An effort created from a bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2023, the most recent funding represents the third round of $5 billion that the EPA will disburse over a five-year period.

“This funding from the EPA ensures that thousands of students in Massachusetts will soon be able to get to and from school on clean, electric-powered buses that don’t pollute the air they breathe,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper. “It’s time that we move away from gas-powered school buses and this investment form the Biden-Harris Administration will empower 17 school districts to make that switch.”