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Montana school district finds its electric buses can handle sub zero weather


Frigid weather this winter has been causing problems for some electric vehicle owners, who find that their cars do not do well in the cold. Now, that might make some school districts think twice about switching to electric buses, something the Biden administration is pushing with a variety of incentives. But one district in Montana finds that its electric buses do keep running even when temperatures fall far below zero. Montana Public Radio's Ellis Juhlin has this report.

ELLIS JUHLIN, BYLINE: Last year, Montana's conservative state legislature was considering new taxes on electric vehicles and chargers.


ED BUTCHER: Obviously, I think most of us recognize that electric vehicles are not very practical for the state of Montana, especially in rural areas.

JUHLIN: State Representative Ed Butcher is skeptical of them.


BUTCHER: They're interesting toys. If you got $100,000 you don't know what to do with, you can go buy one, but you might get stranded.

JUHLIN: At the same time, 203 miles north of the capital in the little town of Havre, EV school buses were undergoing a real-world test. It gets cold up there, just this side of the Canadian border, and dropped to minus 44 degrees in January's polar vortex.

PAUL TUSS: And with the wind chill, it got as low as 60 below zero.

JUHLIN: Paul Tuss, also a state lawmaker, is from Havre, population 10,000. And he loves it.

TUSS: A lot of folks think of Montana as what they've experienced over the last couple of years when they watch "Yellowstone." That's not Havre, Mont.

JUHLIN: He calls it frontier Montana, where cows outnumber people.


JUHLIN: Inside the Havre Public Schools' bus barn, Allen Woodwick, or Woody, is getting one of the big yellow electric school buses ready for afternoon pickups. He was born and raised in Havre and has a big white beard that makes him look kind of like Santa Claus.


ALLEN WOODWICK: The noise you hear is the air compressor pumping up the air seat. There it is. There, that's the engine running. That's what you hear. That's it.

JUHLIN: Woody is the fleet manager here. A few years ago, when the school was in the market for two new buses, he applied for money from the state, from the big national settlement with Volkswagen over faked diesel emissions tests. They got the funding, and Havre was able to buy two electric buses and charging systems for less than the price of one gas bus.

WOODWICK: There was a lot of people that said you couldn't run electrics up in Montana, so (laughter) that was somewhat of a challenge. And it looks like we've been proving the simple fact is yes, we can.

JUHLIN: Havre was the first district in Montana to get electric buses, and it's been running them for a year now. Woody says they run great, sometimes even better than their diesel and gas counterparts, and they handled those recent minus 40 degree temperatures just fine. Nationwide, the Biden administration set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for electric vehicles as part of the Infrastructure Law of 2021, and in January, the White House allocated another nearly $1 billion to help schools replace diesel buses with electric.

WOODWICK: We're going to find out here in the next week or so - couple weeks, I guess. Next week is when the grant application process ends, and we are putting in for two more.

JUHLIN: Woody says the cost savings make sense for a small district. Havre transports 3,500 students a day on its buses. Even with charging, the electric buses' per-mile cost is half or a quarter of the cost for a gas or diesel bus.

For NPR News, I'm Ellis Juhlin in Havre, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ellis Juhlin