Education, engagement and utilizing all available resources, including grants, third-party providers, and youth advocates, are the first steps to transiting the nations’ school bus fleet to electric, a panel of electric bus experts concluded.
The nonprofit K12 Climate Action of the Aspen Institute hosted a webinar on May 13 that included the perspectives of U.S Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and EPA Administrator Michael Regan. They commenced the conversation by discussing how schools can take a leadership role in combatting climate change. Regan spoke about the benefits of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act and how it aims to remove old diesel buses from the nation’s road.
Cardona noted that because school buses are the largest form of public transportation, electrifying the national fleet would expedite the cleaner energy process. He advised educators to lead by example and model what they want to see across the country.
One such way is to engage students, letting them be the voice to initiate change. “[There] is no issue in our country’s history where our youth are not at the front of the lines,” Cardona said, adding that it’s time for adults to step back and listen while giving the younger generation a platform.
First and foremost, he noted that Washington, D.C., needs to lead the charge by purchasing electric school buses for its own roads.
Following the keynote address by Cardona and Regan, panelists Andrew Brennan with the Kentucky Student Voice Team, Rich DiMatteo with Highland Electric Transportation, Katherine Garcia with the Sierra Club, and Gilbert Rosas of Stockton Unified School District in California discussed electric school buses in depth.
Despite the daunting initial upfront cost of eclectic vehicles, they can achieve up to $170,000 worth of maintenance and operational savings over the lifetime of the bus, compared to diesel. The Sierra Club is a grassroots organization, with chapters in all 50 states, that focuses on pollution-free vehicles for even the youngest commuters. Garcia said it’s her goal that her 1-year-old son is riding in an electric bus once he’s of school age.
Meanwhile, Brennan, who is also a National Geographic fellow, is working to help the Commonwealth of Kentucky transition its school buses to electricity. He noted he is currently in the early stages of determining how diesel school buses affect academic achievement and student health.
He explained that Kentucky was ahead of the curve by investing millions of dollars in 2009 to transition 156 school buses from diesel to hybrid-electric school buses in the most rural counties. However, the promise of hybrid technology was eventually determined to not be a viable solution for student transportation. Today, 95 percent of the buses in the state continue to be powered solely by diesel.
“How can we double down on the climate impact of our schools and be leaders in the green economy?” Brennan asked.
Engaging Students & Knocking Down Barriers
Rosas said Stockton Unified in central California is working to involve students, so they are the ones sharing the district’s green energy story to the surrounding community. He noted that Stockton is in the process of receiving its first 11 electric buses. Because it is located in a disadvantaged community, district officials made a conscious effort to reduce the carbon footprint. Rosas, the school district’s energy education specialist, worked with grant providers to incorporate electric vehicles into its fleet.
While he explained that COVID-19 created many additional barriers, such as a tight schedule, the district was able to make it work. He advised having someone on the team that is focused on putting together the grant and following up on its status.
Highland Electric, which is working with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland to begin phasing-in electric into a 1,400-bus fleet, found another option to reduce barriers, including the high upfront costs. DiMatteo explained that Highland and MCPS signed an initial agreement to deploy 326 electric school buses over four years. Highland is investing in the charging infrastructure as well as covering the purchase price of the bus. The company is also covering construction costs and working directly with the local public utility.
Over a 12-year span, MCPS would continue to pay Highland Electric the same annual operating costs as what it currently pays for diesel buses. Highland would earn revenue from decreased maintenance costs as well as a vehicle-to-grid project. “We take on the risk that the operational savings will be there so that the districts don’t have to bet on that themselves,” DiMatteo said.
Following the webinar, DiMatteo confirmed to School Transportation News that because the useful life of a school bus in Maryland is set at 12 years, that was the maximum contract term Highland could offer. He explained that each annual deployment (25 buses in 2021, 61 buses in 2022, and 120 buses in 2023 and 2024) will be under contract for 12-year time period.
“At the end of each deployment year’s contract term, MCPS will have the same options it has today when a diesel bus gets to the end of its useful life, extend the useful life through an extension or buy/lease a new vehicle,” DiMatteo said. “Vehicles will be retired under the Highland contract just like diesel [buses] are today, following the normal useful life pattern and retirement schedule. MCPS will have all the same flexibility it has today when a bus gets to the end of its useful life.”
How to Transition to Electric Right Now
Sierra Club’s Garcia said the moment is now for clean energy advocates, as the White House is making electric school buses a priority. The Senate’s Clean Commute for Kids Act would invest $25 billion in helping school districts adopt electric buses. The Sierra Club is advocating that the money flows into low-income and communities of color first, which the bill also prioritizes.
Garcia also shared information on the “Ready for 100 Campaign,” which encourages cities and school districts to access clean school buses and phase out all fossil fuels to electricity. She said districts are already starting similar initiatives. For instance, San Ysidro School District in San Diego is committed to rolling out zero-emission buses starting this year, and Seattle Public Schools announced it will phase out all 400 fossil fuel buses by 2040.
Rosas noted that obtaining funding is key to making electric school buses a reality. He advised school district leaders to look toward peers that are already using electric school buses to learn how they are implementing them. That way, he said, the model could potentially be repeated and not recreated. DiMatteo added that the third-party model of electrification that Highland is developing, solves many upfront problems for school districts.
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Brennan explained that there are no safe exposure levels of diesel exhaust to children, especially the youngest and those with respiratory illnesses. He said, right now the role school districts can play is to stop purchasing diesel buses.
Garcia agreed. “There is no time to waste, every school bus purchased next has to be electric,” she said, adding that accelerating the transition to school districts who need it most should be a priority.
“It’s about our kids, so, let kids tell the story,” Rosas said. “It’s about them and for them, why not include them?”
Brennan advised involving younger generations as they are the most up-to-date on the climate crisis but lack education on how diesel school buses contribute to the crisis. Awareness around youth advocates is a good, important first step, he said.
He added that it’s not just school buses but schools in general that contribute to the climate crisis. Brennan added that students have the most to lose when classrooms aren’t in working order, or when diesel school buses are “poisoning” them.
He also advocated for younger people to get their parents on board with the change. “Partner with young people, so we can reach families and people in their networks as well,” he advised. “Inter-generational learning is a great opportunity.”