Report Offers Roadmap for Electric School Bus Transition


A new report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund notes that most school buses in the U.S. run on diesel, a fossil fuel linked to numerous health problems. FatCamera / Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

While some students are still learning remotely or on hybrid schedules due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the climate emergency hasn’t suddenly disappeared because of the devastating public health crisis—meaning neither has the need to radically and rapidly transform society.

The sweeping transformation that study after study signals is necessary for the future of the planet and all of its inhabitants includes electrifying the transportation sector. A report out Tuesday details opportunities to aid that effort by shifting to zero-emissions electric school buses.

The new report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund notes that “the vast majority of school buses in the United States run on diesel, a fossil fuel that has been shown to cause numerous health problems, including asthma, bronchitis, and cancer.”

Along with the impacts on human health, diesel exhaust is also a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. While there are multiple benefits to shifting to more health- and climate-friendly buses, there are also barriers. As the report explains:

The technology is here, and electric school buses are ready to roll, but the question remains: how do schools pay for them? While electric buses can save schools money over the lifespan of the bus, the initial price tag of a new electric bus can turn many schools off to the idea of electrification. In many cases, assistance from federal grant programs and loans are needed in order to finance such a purchase. In addition to these programs, utility investment, financing strategies, and vehicle-to-grid technology provide promising opportunities that can help schools ease the transition and accelerate toward a zero-emission electric future.

Ethan Evans, U.S. PIRG Education Fund Transportation associate, emphasized in a statement Tuesday that “while electric buses can save and even earn schools money over the lifespan of the bus, the initial price tag often presents a hurdle for cash-strapped districts. Utility investment would help ease the transition and accelerate us toward a zero-emission electric future.”

The report points out that not only is a large-scale shift to electric buses better for public health and the planet, it could also benefit school districts as well as utility companies that could assist with transition costs. “Electric buses can expand and stabilize the grid, provide surplus energy storage, and increase energy demand,” the report says. “By providing discounted rates on electric bus charging and building charging infrastructure, utilities can help speed the adoption of electric buses.”

“Utilities can also support electric buses by investing in infrastructure for bus charging in depots and on routes, helping to finance the upfront purchasing costs of electric buses, and introducing smart charging systems to maximize integration of renewable energy,” the report adds, noting examples where such efforts are already underway in Oregon and Virginia.

The report highlights vehicle-to-grid technology that enables buses to send stored energy back to the grid and Pay-As-You-Save (or PAYS) agreements in which a utility company covers the initial cost of shifting to new technology that the customer repays over the buses’ lifespans as “particularly promising options.”

“By pairing vehicle-to-grid technology and PAYS, each electric bus could save school districts up to 0,000 per electric bus,” according to the report, which includes lists of recommendations for school districts, lawmakers, and utility companies to boost the use of electric buses on a national scale.

As Morgan Folger, Environment America Research and Policy Center Destination: Zero Carbon campaign director, put it: “Only by working together can we tackle the existential threat of climate change and accelerate the process towards a zero-emission future.”

Schools are urged to “commit to transitioning to 100% all-electric buses by 2030, with a plan to phase out the purchase of new diesel buses immediately.” District leaders should “use any and all financing methods available” to deliver on their pledges—including by engaging with local utility companies.

Utility companies are called on to commit to renewable energy, reduce emissions, increase grid capacity, and assist in transition efforts, including with vehicle-to-grid technology and PAYS pilot programs. Lawmakers, the report says, must “work with utilities and regulators to develop effective electric bus investment programs that protect ratepayers and consumers.”

The report further calls on elected officials to develop grant programs for the transition to electric buses, tighten fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions standards, and subsidize research and development in related technology, including vehicle-to-grid.

As the groups published their joint report on Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden’s pick to run the Department of Transportation. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana—who faced off against Biden in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race but ultimately dropped out and endorsed him—has vowed to make climate a key priority in his new role.

“Ultimately, we cannot afford not to act on climate,” Buttigieg told senators at a confirmation hearing when asked about his support for the Green New Deal. “The question becomes: How can we do that in a way that creates economic benefit in the near term, as well as preventing catastrophe in the long term?”

Part of the solution, the report suggests, is greening the way students get to school.

“Our kids deserve a world without diesel emissions,” said Folger. Evans concurred, declaring that “getting to school shouldn’t include a daily dose of toxic pollution.”

“With school districts, lawmakers, and utilities all working together,” Evans added, “we can make the switch to all-electric school buses and give our kids a healthier ride to school.”

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

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