HomeSpecial ReportsIndustry Advocates Talk Best Practices of Implementing Electric School Buses Across States

Industry Advocates Talk Best Practices of Implementing Electric School Buses Across States

A Feb. 15 webinar hosted by the by the Alliance for Electric School Buses and World Resource Institute’s (WRI) Electric School Bus Initiative featured leaders from state agencies, advocacy groups, school districts, and others to discuss best practices for making statewide policies regarding fleet electrification.

Caroline Chacon, coalition manager for the Alliance for Electric School Buses, opened the webinar by discussing research on electric buses and how they are beneficial for student transportation professionals as well as the students they transport. She cited reasons such as zero tailpipe emissions, reduced pollution, fuel and maintenance savings, and the potential benefits to electric grid resiliency. Chacon also spoke about the advancement of environmental justice, as electric buses can lower pollution in low-income, Black, Latino and indigenous communities, which are oftentimes significantly more polluted in terms of air quality.

She continued that states should take advantage of the $6 billion worth of funding from various federal programs and the increased number of manufactures in the market building electric school buses.

“State action now can produce benefits, for students, drivers and communities that will last for decades,” she said.

Chacon also referenced best practices that can be found in the Alliance’s downloadable resource, “Driving Change: A State Playbook for Equitable Electric School Bus Policy.”

The webinar discussion was moderated by Sue Gander, director of the WRI’s Electric School Bus Initiative. She launched a poll question to the audience asking why they want to advance school bus electrification in their state. Responses included student health, environmental protection and fighting climate change, enhancing grid resilience, modernizing operations, and saving money.

Panelists discuss implementing fleet electrification on a state level. Pictured: Top, from left: Sue Gander, Commissioner Alessandra Carreon and State Representative Alex Valdez. Bottom, from left: State Representative John Autry, Katherine Garcia and Katrina Morris.
Webinar panelists discuss implementing fleet electrification on a state level. Pictured: Top, from left: Sue Gander, Michigan Public Service Commissioner Alessandra Carreon, and Colorado Rep. Alex Valdez. Bottom, from left: North Carolina Rep. John Autry, Katherine Garcia of the Sierra Club, and Katrina Morris of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation.

Colorado state Rep. Alex Valdez explained that the districts he represents in downtown Denver and the northern side of the city are historically used for industrial applications and rank very highly in statewide air pollution. He continued that the air quality is 11 times worse than what the World Health Organization recommends and the seventh worst in the state.

“When we talk about how we’re going to attack our pollution strategy, coming from the transportation sector in general one of the easiest things we can do, and one of the things we should do first, is school buses.” Valdez continued.

He added that the vehicles are ideal for the electric cycle, because unlike transit buses, they don’t have to run continuously and can charge in between routes and overnight. He said that his main motivation is to restore human health and the first step should be to protect our children from being exposed to toxins.

Valdez explained that the Colorado Energy Office was set up to efficiently handle funding for electrification. When funding is acquired, there is management in place to make sure the funds “got turned into buses.”

Katherine Garcia, transportation director at the Sierra Club, opened her comments by expressing her motivation as a mother and how the number one priority of parents and schools is keeping students safe and healthy. “There are countless books, blogs, and podcasts about setting your kids up to have a successful day,” she said. “I’m proposing that we add electric buses into that mix of recommendations.”

She continued that she is working at the Sierra Club to further and accelerate the transition to electric school buses. She stated that diesel is a health risk to students and that it is egregious that students are still being exposed to those risks.

“Together we can change this reality,” she added.

Katrina Morris, director of transportation at West Shore Educational Service Districts in Michigan and the executive director of the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation, said that the state’s first 17 electric buses arrived in 2019. She spoke on the benefits of electric buses for students with special needs as they are less stimulating without the loud engine noises of a diesel bus. With consistent communication and support between school districts, parents, and students, she continued that “this is the perfect time to see this dream become a reality.”

The next panelist to weigh in was Commissioner Alessandra Carreon of the Michigan Public Service Commission. “As a utility regulator, taking action on electric school buses is critical to advance a clean energy transition,” she explained.

She spoke about utility regulator directives that are influenced by laws and that specific policies dictate how the laws are implemented. She said that as her job is to ensure grid reliability and safety at reasonable rates, it is critical to identify and communicate ways to integrate transportation and optimize energy resources in cost-effective ways.

She stressed that her ability to further electrification depends on state policies that have been set prior and encouraged discussions between people in different roles and sectors to find and implement those best policies.

North Carolina state Rep. John Autry said the factor driving his championing of electric school bus implementation is his 11-year-old grandson, who was diagnosed with asthma at 7 years old. Autry explained that his grandmother, who worked in the mills from the age of 11, also had asthma. He said that asthma was considered “an old person disease” and that our children’s health should not be negatively affected simply by going to school.

Gander continued with the question, “How you work to prioritize communities that are most impacted by transportation pollution?” Garcia explained that the Sierra Club is advocating for states to have equity provisions to ensure under-served communities are prioritized. She explained that there have been considerations raised with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and that she has been encouraging the most impacted districts to apply.

Commissioner Carreon spoke about the state of Michigan’s recent Clean Energy Standards that were signed into law. She continued that these policies are dependent and better informed by testimonies, case records and engagement that have dictated expectations for grid equity.

Rep. Valdez said it is important to define what a disproportionately impacted community is, which ensures funding goes to the right places first. With continued air quality concerns, exacerbated by forest fires that have plagued the West Coast, he continued that it’s incredibly important to focus on the overall health of the students and their communities.

Garcia discussed California’s ambitious electrification policies and how fleet transition requirements are essential in ensuring that electric vehicle infrastructure and grid planning are aligned, which in turn will boost participation in federal incentive plans. “Establishing a positive feedback loop that starts with standards, moves over to infrastructure and also helps with demands of the Clean School Bus Program.”

For school districts to go fully electric, Morris said infrastructure must be in place, funding must be acquired for more expensive electric school bus models, and consistent technical and training support from OEM’s is needed for fleet electrification success. She advised districts to draw resources from their state associations.

Rep. Autry addressed bi-partisan support, saying he wished there was a “magic wand” when trying to find allies in environmental issues. He discussed factors such as cost-savings and health concerns to the forefront to gain support.

“Look, we’re going to get there,” he said. “We’re going to make these advances. We’re going to make these changes …The conversations I was having six years ago are very different from the conversations I’m having today.”

The webinar concluded with Chacon showing a video made by Regina Porras, a senior at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Maryland. She is participating in the Montgomery County New Green Deal internship program, for which she is leading an electric school bus initiative The teen said she is hoping to make a difference in the climate change crisis through rallies, community events and campaigns.

“I’m outraged that me and my fellow students don’t have a safe and sustainable way to get to schools. I’m angry that we are exposed to these toxic fumes on the daily, compromising our health and the health of generations to come.”

She urged legislators to implement electric buses and encouraged others to reach out to their state governments and advocate for clean energy “to pave the way to a safe and healthier tomorrow.”

Related: EPA Takes Technology-Neutral Approach in Finalizing Phase 3 GHG Rule
Related: OEMs, Organizations Comment on EPA GHG Phase 3
Related: Update: EPA Rescinds Rural Classification of W.V. Clean School Bus Funds

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