Daily Herald Op-Ed: Electric school buses are healthiest choice for kids’ lungs, our communities and the planet

Electric school buses reduce children's exposure to toxic pollutants today while decreasing greenhouse gas emissions that threaten their future.

In a Feb. 6 Daily Herald Letter to the Editor, Tucker Perkins, president of the industry lobby group Propane Education & Research Council, called for a planet-friendly answer for school buses in Illinois, and we agree this is a vital goal for the health, safety and well-being of our children. But propane-powered buses are part of the problem and a false solution.

Instead, communities around Chicago should look to electric school buses — the only type of school bus currently on the market that reduces children’s exposure to toxic pollutants today while substantially decreasing greenhouse gas emissions that threaten their future.

Per mile, propane school buses emit more greenhouse gas emissions than any other school bus type — even more than diesel school buses. Electric school buses contribute less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of propane school buses on average, even when accounting for emissions associated with electricity production here in Illinois. And, as clean renewable energy on the electric grid increases, those minimal emissions related to electric school buses will continue to decrease.

Electric school buses have no tailpipe emissions, meaning the air is healthier on board and around the buses, keeping kids, drivers and entire communities safe from the air pollutants produced by propane and diesel fuels. Those pollutants contribute to respiratory conditions like asthma, heart disease and other health threats which disproportionately harm more vulnerable low-income communities and communities of color.

The time is ripe for communities to invest in electric school buses. Though they currently cost more upfront, the U.S. EPA’s new $5 billion Clean School Bus Program offers funding to offset this cost differential — and to help pay for charging equipment too. And a new electric school bus can save an average of $6,000 every year in operational costs compared to a new diesel school bus — savings which districts can invest back into classrooms.

In Illinois, there are additional pots of money for electric school buses. As part of the Volkswagen Diesel Emissions Settlement Fund, Illinois EPA has $27 million in unspent funds earmarked for electric school buses. A handful of school districts in Chicago’s North Suburbs are among the awardees of funding for zero-emission school buses so far from programs administered by Illinois

EPA. They include Wauconda Community Unit School District 118 and First Student Bus Company for Schaumburg School District 54.

A staggering number of school-age kids in our state could benefit from a cleaner ride to their classrooms. Illinois has about one million children taking school buses daily, with more than 20,000 school buses in operation every day school is in session. We don’t expect every school district in Chicago’s northern suburbs or other parts of the state to convert their bus fleets to electric overnight, but there’s growing evidence across the nation bolstering the case for making that switch.

It’s no wonder demand for electric school buses is taking off in districts in areas as diverse as Alaska and Arizona. Current electric school bus models can travel 75 — 210 miles on a single charge — covering the majority of school bus routes in the U.S. Electric school buses already operating on Alaska’s roads demonstrate they have good performance and range even in the coldest temperatures.

To protect the health of young people now and reduce threats to their future, it’s time to leave fossil fuels, including propane, in the rearview mirror. With billions of dollars available to help districts make the switch, electric school buses are a win for our students, our school budgets and our communities.

This op-ed was originally published in the Daily Herald on March 9, 2023.

Brian Urbaszewski is director of environmental health programs at the Respiratory Health Association in Chicago.

Susan Mudd is a senior policy advocate at the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.