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Electric School Buses: Cleaner Air, Healthier Children

Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur, Director of Transportation of Efficiency -

It is imperative that we reduce emissions in the transportation sector. Last year marked the first time that transportation greenhouse gas emissions exceeded those from electric generation. High mileage, low fuel economy vehicles, like school buses, offer a great strategy not only to protect the environment, but also to provide cleaner air for everyone.

Every day, an estimated 27 million children in the United States board yellow school buses to access their education. Ninety to 95% of these vehicles are powered by diesel fuel.  It has been well documented that diesel vehicles emit greenhouse gases, carcinogens, and particulates, all of which negatively affect our health and environment. As a number of school districts across the nation look into ways to reduce the negative health and environmental effects of diesel school buses and to insulate budgets against fluctuating diesel prices, electric school buses have emerged as an exciting new technology.

School bus emissions are linked to asthma and other health risks. Studies have shown that diesel pollutants concentrate inside a bus cabin, increasing children’s exposure.  Electric school buses can greatly reduce these risks by eliminating motor emissions. Furthermore, as more of our electricity is powered by renewables, the environmental impact of charging electric-vehicles is reduced.

Beyond the notable air quality and health benefits, electric school buses offer considerable advantages over their diesel counterparts.  Electric school buses are highly efficient and cost less to fuel. They also present an opportunity to partner with local utilities; electric school bus batteries have the potential to serve as storage for excess renewable generation, a secondary source of power in an emergency, and a strategy for managing load.  These non-transportation uses of electric school buses could serve as revenue to help fund the vehicles and facilitate the transition to a cleaner energy future.

Despite these benefits, there are still hurdles to large-scale deployment of electric school buses. The most significant is the upfront cost of the vehicle, which can be three to four times that of a new diesel bus. Another barrier is a lack of awareness about the availability of electric school buses. VEIC estimates that currently there are only 26 electric school buses on the road in the United States, with another 63 expected by the end of this year.  VEIC is working to support the deployment of three of these buses as part of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (MA DOER) Vehicle-to-Grid Electric School Bus pilot program.

The Massachusetts pilot project marks the first time that ready-built, traditional Type C school buses have been deployed into service in the United States. These buses are also the first cold weather deployment of electric school bus technology. VEIC and our partners in Massachusetts are learning a lot about what is needed to successfully get electric school buses on the road.

To raise awareness about electric school buses, VEIC is hosting a series of workshops to bring together experts and stakeholders to discuss vehicle technology, explore funding opportunities, and share lessons learned from the MA DOER pilot project. The first of these workshops was held on April 18th, 2017 in conjunction with the New York City (NYC) Department of Education’s Office of Pupil Transportation (OPT). OPT is implementing their own pilot project that will transition 25 diesel buses to electric ones. The success of this pilot will inform a potential initiative that could bring as many as 200 electric school buses to NYC.

VEIC will be hosting four more electric school bus workshops across the Northeast in the upcoming months, the next of which will be held on July 13th in White River Junction, VT.   

A significant funding opportunity for electric school bus deployment is also emerging with the 2016 Volkswagen Settlement, which will make millions of dollars available to states to repower or replace aging diesel vehicles. School districts can receive up to 100 percent funding to replace diesel school buses with electric models. Funding can also be used for charging infrastructure for the vehicles. Many States are now soliciting public comment and drafting their plans for how they will use their mitigation funds. It’s important that state officials responsible for determining how funds will be used hear from school districts, utilities, and parents who would like to deploy electric school buses in their community.

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