St. Paul school officials hope to take advantage of a new federal program allowing the district to replace up to 25 diesel school buses with electric or low-emission vehicles.

The Environmental Protection Agency is accepting applications until Aug. 19 as part of a rebate program. St. Paul, unlike Minneapolis Public Schools, is amongdistricts being given priority status based on student poverty levels.

Electric buses are viewed as a clean alternative to diesel buses, and St. Paul ought to do what it can to make the vehicles a part of its fleet, Joan Pasiuk, a transit advocate, told school board members at their July 19 meeting.

Board Member Uriah Ward said he was pleased that the district has an application in the works. If successful, the state's second-largest district could be a leader in ensuring "we are building a sustainable environment for our community," he said.

The EPA Clean School Bus program launched this year with an initial $500 million budget to cover the purchase of electric buses and related charging infrastructure. The buses would replace diesel buses that are 12 years old or older, and the diesel vehicles then would be scrapped under EPA guidelines.

St. Paul plans to team up with its contractors to acquire the 25 buses, each of which costs $375,000. If the district application is accepted, the buses would be delivered in 2024. Private companies cannot apply for funding directly, but can enter into agreements with districts to replace buses with electric vehicles.

Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, said recently there was "tentative excitement" about the program among bus companies, but that enthusiasm is tempered by the current rules.

The EPA wants guarantees that the buses will be in use for five years, Jonas said, but districts typically contract with companies for no more than four years.

"That's going to be a hurdle," she said.

In addition, Jonas said she worries that some parts of the state might not have the charging capacity to support 20 electric buses traveling to a wrestling tournament.

"Those buses are going to take a lot of juice," she said.

But, she added, it will be interesting to see how the push for electric vehicles plays out.

In Iowa, officials are making a similar push for electrification. State Auditor Rob Sand recently touted the federal program at a town hall meeting, urging the state's school districts to apply because the funds are "not state-to-state allocated, it's one bucket," and it would be best to try to get ahead of the competition, according to a report by KMAland Broadcasting.

"The more entities we have applying in Iowa for the program, the more money we're going to be able to bring in for our school districts," Sand was quoted as saying.

In St. Paul, private companies handle the bulk of student transportation, but the school system also has buses driven by union employees. The district said its EPA application will cover "25 buses total between our contractors and the district's fleet."