December 20, 2023
Midwest Electric School Bus Update
More Zero-emission Buses Hitting the Roads
By Ezra Rich, ELPC Intern 2023
The Environmental Law & Policy Center has been at the forefront of promoting clean electric school buses across the Midwest before most local leaders even knew they existed. Now, more school district superintendents and parents are learning about the public health and environmental benefits of offering students healthier rides to school. Zero-emission buses are now rolling out and replacing the traditional dirty diesel-fueled school buses that are commonplace across the country.
The Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which created the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program (CSBP), has jump-started funding for these zero-emission buses in a way that, to date, has been unparalleled. ELPC has been working hard to connect school districts across the Midwest to the $5 billion pot of federal funding for clean school buses. Half of the $5 billion, spread over five years, is specifically earmarked for electric school buses, while the other half can be used for electric, propane, or compressed natural gas (CNG) school buses. School districts can use this funding to purchase new electric school buses as well as underwrite the charging infrastructure needed to juice up the buses before they get on the road. ELPC has been spreading the news about the EPA program through webinars, direct outreach, and working with third parties to share information that helps transform transportation for Midwest students.
ELPC began advocating for electric school buses in 2016 after the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal resulted in a $2.7 billion mitigation trust fund. Across the country states, including those in the Midwest, received money to improve air quality, based on the number of cars programmed to violate a Clean Air Act standard registered in the state.
In our internal analysis, ELPC concluded a sizable portion should go toward electric school buses because it checked all the boxes of the major criteria for how those funds could be used. School buses are used in every type of community, and impact a particularly vulnerable population: our kids. In 2017, ELPC orchestrated an electric school bus press and educational tour to six communities in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Soon after, a combined $20 million in VW funds across several states was allocated to electric school buses. ELPC has since worked with others in Midwest states to help steer additional state funds towards electric school buses. This summer, Michigan and Minnesota state budgets include new programs of $125 and $13 million, respectively, for clean school buses. Through advocacy with the Alliance for Electric School Buses, of which it is a founding member, ELPC has supported funding for the creation and now the implementation of the CSBP.
Electric school buses provide significant benefits to both students and the school districts they serve. Zero-emission buses compared to diesel buses have direct health benefits for the students and drivers on the buses, as well as the communities where they drive. Electric school buses can also reduce fuel and maintenance costs for school districts and, through Vehicle-to-Grid technology, can become a revenue source for school districts.
Data unequivocally shows that electric school buses are:
- The most suitable remedy for reducing GHG emissions and other harmful pollutants for students riding school buses.
- A solution to ensuring children’s safety.
- A wise investment to reduce fuel and maintenance costs for school transportation providers
- Able to increase attendance for students.
Here are some examples of school districts across the Midwest that have already received funding. Some are already transporting students, while others expect delivery of their buses soon:
In Northern Michigan, Pellston School District and Ojibwe Charter School in Brimley were awarded a combined $2 million in the first round of EPA’s rebate funding for five electric school buses. Pellston School District received over $1.5 million, allowing them to almost entirely replace their school bus fleet.
Beyond the transportation and health benefits from these buses, the reduced fuel costs are helping Pellston in other ways as well. As Pellston Superintendent Stephen Seelye said in reference to savings on fuel costs, “I can put that money back into my teachers and my students, that’s thrilling and exciting and just absolutely fabulous.”
The electric buses for the Pellston School District debuted this fall with a high-profile event that included Phil Roos, Director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), and Debra Shore, Regional Administrator of the US EPA, alongside other officials. With much fanfare, the highlight of the event included a bus ride over the Mackinac Bridge.
IKM-Manning Community School District in rural Iowa held an open house this fall to celebrate the arrival of one electric school bus to its district, which was added to the 15 diesel buses currently transporting students there. The zero-emission bus, which went into service in November, is being used on a rural route of about 75 miles each day.
Trevor Miller, IKM-Manning’s Superintendent, summed it up best about why they pursued applying for a zero-emission school bus through the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program:
“Reducing emissions was a big appeal and it also performs well in all types of weather, especially Iowa’s cold winters. This Blue Bird bus will significantly improve the air quality for the students and communities in which it drives. We decided we were ready to try out the electric bus for ourselves, marking another way our district invests in our students and the community.”
Palmyra-Eagle Area School district, WI
In southern Wisconsin, Palmyra-Eagle Area School District received six electric school buses replacing its entire diesel fleet. Palmyra-Eagle is the first school district in Wisconsin to receive funding and get its buses on the roads. The district is expecting the transition to electric school buses will save $50,000 in annual fuel costs.
These new buses will transport about 600 students in that district to and from school, as well as to sporting events and other activities. Jessica Chelminak, one of the district’s bus drivers put it this way in the local newspaper: “At the end of the day, to see the smile on a kid’s face, and be able to be the first person they see in the day and the last person they see at the end of the day, it can make a difference.” These electric buses help the kids get to and from school, ensure better health for the kids, and ensure that the drivers and schools see more smiling faces.
School districts across Indiana
Six school districts across Indiana were awarded funding from the first round of the rebate pool from the Clean School Bus Program: Caston School Corp., East Washington School Corp., Michigan City Area Schools, North Central Parke Community School Corp, Northeastern Wayne Schools and Western Boone County Community School District. The schools are expected to purchase a total of 13 zero-emission buses.
“We’re proud that school districts in the Midwest submitted more applications for electric school bus funding than any other region of the country,” Susan Mudd, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate, said in a press release. “This is one more way that demonstrates Midwest school administrators care about their kids.”
More buses to come
The application period for the second round of EPA Clean School Bus Program rebate funding is now underway, in late 2023, and ELPC is currently working to reach out to more Midwest schools and bring as many electric school buses to the region as possible. Word is spreading fast about the variety of financial incentives available for these buses through media coverage, word of mouth among school administrators, EPA’s website and other state agencies. You can be sure ELPC will continue a persistent drumbeat to let everyone know that kids can get a cleaner, quieter, healthier ride to school that is also healthy for their communities.
Ezra Rich was an environmental policy intern at ELPC in the Fall of 2023. He is a Senior at Northwestern University, expecting to graduate in June 2024 with a BA in Chemistry and a Minor in Environmental Policy and Culture.