August 29, 2018
Volkswagen’s Cheating Scandal Could Have a Silver Lining
By Edward Humes
To the delight of environmental organizations and child health advocates, school bus replacement has emerged as an early favorite in a number of state plans. Tamara Dzubay, a clean energy specialist at the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, has been working with school districts in the Midwest for the past two years, encouraging them to apply for the VW funds. Dzubay says she and her colleagues looked for diesel-replacement projects that delivered the most in terms of pollution reduction, public health effects, cost-effectiveness over the life cycle of a vehicle, benefits to a vulnerable population (the VW-funded projects are supposed to have a social and environmental justice component, favoring populations that have historically suffered most from emissions), and market-transformation potential. She says that nothing hits all those criteria better than the electrification of the nation’s 480,000 mostly diesel-powered school buses.
“Electrifying school buses really stood out as the best opportunity,” she says. “It’s the largest fleet, more than two times that of transit buses and rail combined—it’s actually the largest category of mass transportation. And it’s also transporting the most vulnerable population. Kids are most susceptible to the negative health impacts of diesel pollution because their lungs are still developing. Those that ride school buses are exposed every single day.”
The market for electric school buses has lots of room to grow. Nationwide, there are now only 160 electric buses, at a cost per vehicle of $230,000 (including charging system) versus $109,000 for diesel buses. Dzubay says the electric school bus market is where electric transit buses were seven years ago. Increased sales have driven transit-bus prices down by 40 percent, so their lifetime costs are now several hundred thousand dollars lower than those of their diesel counterparts. Significant investments of VW money in electric school buses should drive their prices down in the same way, Dzubay says. And even at current prices, electric buses become cheaper than diesel 12 years into their 16-year life spans.
Clean buses could be even cheaper if the states coordinated their purchases, but spending has been fractured. Illinois plans to dedicate $10 million of its $109 million share to electric school buses; Missouri is setting aside $12 million out of $41 million for cleaner buses, with no fuel type specified. Oklahoma will spend 20 percent of its $21 million on nondiesel buses. California, which gets the largest payout from the mitigation trust—$423 million—is devoting $130 million to zero-emission buses of all types, with school buses receiving up to half that amount, according to the state’s draft plan.