Zeeland school district using an electric school bus to distribute free meals during COVID-19 crisis.


Susan Mudd

Electric school buses hit the road in the Midwest

In nearly every community across the Midwest you can find a yellow school bus. It’s a classic feature of American life, so common it’s easy to forget.

But the diesel engine inside your average bus is not so sunny as its exterior, producing air pollution and carbon emissions that pose grave risks to our children. At ELPC, we are focused on solutions, so we’ve been working with Midwest states over the past couple of years to start the transition to modern electric school buses. I was thrilled to see Senator Kamala Harris introduce the Clean School Bus Act in the Senate, and Representative Jahana Hayes introduces it in the US House of Representatives. Their congressional efforts will help spread awareness across the country, and help improve air quality for millions of kids. From big cities to small towns, any community can lead the way with electric school buses for public health and environmental justice. Hopefully, some of the lessons we’ve learned in the Midwest can help inspire change across the country.

What’s so bad about diesel school buses?

Let’s start with some data. Tailpipe emissions contain about 40 different pollutants, like soot, which contribute to childhood asthma, the most common chronic condition for American children, affecting about 1 in 10 kids nationwide. Children breathe 50% more air per pound of bodyweight than adults and their lungs are still developing, making them especially vulnerable to respiratory diseases caused by diesel pollution. Kids are exposed to these pollutants while they’re waiting, boarding, and riding the bus, and the whole community is also exposed when school buses idle. And since the wheelchair lift on a school bus is often near the back by the exhaust pipe, children with disabilities face even more fumes. By eliminating these dangers, electric school buses could result in 14 million fewer absences from school a year.

Electric buses work well

Electric school buses work a lot like regular buses, but they’re cleaner and quieter. Most trips are predictable, within relatively short distances in the community. That means drivers can plan how to use charging stations effectively, without the same “range anxiety” that your average electric vehicle user might face on a long road trip. Since electric school buses don’t need quick chargers, they can make use of less-expensive Level 2 chargers, the same kind used by electric vehicles all across the country. All major school bus manufacturers offer electric models, with features like regenerative braking, which tops off the battery by using the momentum of the bus itself. Despite fears that cold weather might hurt the battery life, cold communities from Minnesota to Massachusetts are having good experiences with electric buses throughout the winter.

An electric bus is a good investment

While the sticker price is more expensive, an electric bus will actually cost less over the life of the vehicle compared to a diesel bus, making electric a better investment in the long run. Diesel engines have hundreds of additional parts, each of which can give out in our unforgiving Midwestern climate and abundant corrosive road salt. With less parts, maintenance is significantly less expensive for an electric bus. When it comes to public investments, an electric bus is a wise decision for any community over a diesel bus, but it’s also a good complement to other public transportation decisions. School buses serve more people across the country than any other form of public transportation, and they serve a particularly important and vulnerable population: our children. An investment in safe transportation for our kids is an investment in the future of our communities.

ELPC is helping school districts afford electric buses

Electric school buses are a wise investment over time, but for struggling school districts, an expensive up-front cost can be a significant barrier to entry. ELPC has been focused on finding opportunities for financial support from both public funds and private partnerships. While we try to prioritize communities that have particularly poor air quality or health disparities, any additional electric school buses help to spur the nationwide industry to become more cost competitive. We hope to see children in all communities served by affordable buses in the future with economies of scale.

VW Settlement funds

After the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal of 2016, states across the country received money from the legal settlement, based on the number of VW diesel vehicles’ defeat devices in each state. States are allowed to use the money to replace certain types of dirty diesel vehicles and equipment, to improve air quality and health outcomes. We recognized that electric school buses could help the most vulnerable people for the funds, so we set out to inform Midwestern communities and legislators. ELPC hosted an Electric School Bus Webinar in 2017, and in the summer we traveled to 6 communities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. We shared our research and amplified the voices of local communities, public health experts, education professionals, and utility leaders. Each state has since carved out a defined portion of their VW settlement funds to invest in electric school buses.

  • Illinois: $11 million
  • Michigan: $4 million
  • Ohio: $3 million
  • Indiana: $2.75 million

ELPC is making school districts aware of their opportunities and assisting with application materials. Each state’s system is different, often with staggered rounds of funding over 3 years. If you’d like to find out more about opportunities in your state, please contact me at [email protected].

Partnering with utilities

As our society shifts away from fossil fuels and moves towards renewable energy and distributed generation, we’ll need to be smart about how we share and store resources. Utilities will be critical to this shift, and electric school buses present multiple opportunities for utilities to plan ahead. ELPC has been working to build partnerships between utilities and school districts, because electric school buses can be mutually beneficial.

In the immediate future, utilities can sell their energy to school buses to use the grid for power instead of diesel fuel. Since buses can charge overnight, when energy is less expensive for utilities than energy used during daytime peak hours. In the long run, electric buses can also provide important storage opportunities for utilities. Energy needs are highest during the summer when air conditioners are running, and utilities often have to tap into old expensive power plants, raising electricity rates for everyone. Since most school buses don’t get much use in the summer when school is out, their batteries can store energy from local wind and solar sources. When the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing, utilities can use these batteries to share energy back with the community at peak times, instead of tapping into old power plants. While some have just started to use bus batteries like this, utilities love to plan ahead. A small investment from a utility can mean a big difference for school districts who want to go green, and it can have long-term benefits for everyone’s energy needs.

Electric school buses arrive in the Midwest

So far, in Illinois three new electric school buses will hit the streets in the Chicagoland area with the new school year this fall, thanks to state VW funds. Applications recently closed for school districts in the East St. Louis area on July 16th, so the state has not yet announced which schools received funding. The local utility for southern Illinois, Ameren, has also committed to helping support electric bus purchases for the local community. With the most recent state budget, the Illinois legislature approved dispensing most of the remaining funds, but IEPA hasn’t yet announced future rounds of funding. In Ohio, we expect applications to be available for electric school bus funding sometime in the fall of 2020.

In Indiana, the state just announced the four districts that will receive new buses: Monroe County, Bartholomew, Carmel, and Delphi. Duke Energy is partnering with these school districts to help with funding. Indiana plans to dispense a third of the funds each year for three years, so stay tuned for additional application opportunities likely next spring. In Michigan, applications far exceeded state expectations, so the state is considering providing additional funding for buses beyond the original $3 million earmark for electric buses out of the VW settlement. One utility, DTE Energy, is also partnering with school districts to support bus purchases. So far, it looks like we’ll see new electric buses in Gaylord, Zeeland, Oxford, Kalamazoo, Three Rivers, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Roseville, and Oxford.

Keeping up momentum

ELPC is committed to improving air quality across the Midwest, and electric school buses provide one great opportunity. We’re glad to see this issue reaching national attention through the Clean School Bus Act introduced by Kamala Harris in the Senate and Jahana Hayes in the House of Representatives. There is opportunity to push for change at the local level. If you’re ready to help support this work, contact your local school district, state legislator, or congressional representatives. You can also reach out to us at the contact info below. Have you seen an electric school bus in your community? Share a photo with us via email or social media. We hope to see this important clean technology reach cities and towns across the Midwest, for healthy kids and healthy communities.

Susan Mudd,

Senior Policy Advocate

Susan Mudd is an attorney and senior policy advocate for ELPC, where she directs ELPC’s Diesel Pollution Reduction Initiative to protect children’s and community health, ELPC's Electric School bus campaign and with ELPC’s Science Advisory Council.

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