Indiana should buy electric school buses
September 14, 2017
by Dr. Stephen Jay and Janet McCabe
In Indiana, school has been in session since early August and an estimated 650,000 children in communities across the state are climbing onto about 13,000 big yellow school buses every day. Unfortunately, many of these buses are still powered by dirty, diesel engines that cause asthma attacks.
The good news is that a healthier ride to school may be possible starting as soon as next year. That’s because Indiana will soon have the opportunity to use funds from the Volkswagen settlement to purchase clean electric school buses.
Over the course of nearly seven years, Volkswagen sold close to 600,000 diesel cars in the United States with engines programmed to trick emissions standards, contributing many tons of extra pollution to the environment. As part of a national settlement, the company is providing nearly $3 billion to states to support pollution-reducing projects. Indiana’s share of that is about $41 million. Governors and state agencies can spend these funds on a variety of options to reduce air pollution, including buying electric school buses to replace the aging dirty diesel fleet.
There are three reasons why doing so makes sense:
First, more children breathing easier. Nearly 9% of Hoosier children suffer from asthma, a disease that leaves their lungs susceptible to irritation from fine particles, nitrogen oxides, and other air pollutants in diesel fumes. These fumes seep into the cabins of school buses and trigger asthma attacks. Researchers at the Universities of Michigan and Washington have found that diesel school buses are responsible for millions of missed school days each year. Because children’s lungs are still developing, exposure to diesel pollution makes them an especially vulnerable population to lung diseases.
Second, healthier communities. A diesel bus driving around our cities and towns emits a chemical cocktail right at ground level, near our schools, playgrounds and homes. The average school bus makes 85 stops per day. With an electric school bus, there’s no danger from idling engines, because no emissions come out of the tailpipe. In fact, there isn’t a tailpipe at all.
Third, a more robust energy grid. As states shift to power grids that will increasingly draw from renewable sources, zero emission school buses can provide extra benefits. Because school buses operate according to school schedules, they can recharge their batteries overnight, when demand for energy is low and they don’t have to compete with other energy consumers on the grid. During peak demand times, such as hot summer days, electric school buses can serve as local battery packs to provide extra juice back to the grid when it’s needed most. That reduces the demand on all energy sources providing power to the grid and creates a more sustainable power system with more clean energy as the source. Ideally, electric school buses should be powered at night with renewable energy sources.
Electric school buses are not science fiction. There are already more than 100 on the road today in North America, and American companies known for their diesel technology, including Columbus-based Cummins, have announced investments in electric technologies for school buses. On a recent Midwest tour that included stops in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, bus drivers and children loved trying out a quiet and clean electric school bus.
Funds from the Volkswagen settlement are expected to be released in the coming months. Governors putting VW money towards electric school buses would drive the market forward and costs down. School buses represent the largest category of mass transportation in our country, larger than transit and rail combined. We urge Indiana to help move this market to zero emissions and demonstrate leadership for health, the environment, our energy future, and most importantly, our children.
Dr. Stephen Jay
Professor of Medicine and Public Health; past founding chair, IU Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health
former U.S. EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Office of Air and Radiation; senior law fellow at the Environmental Law & Policy Center