Electric school bus fleet

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Powering Progress: Lion Electric’s Grand Opening in Joliet, Illinois

By ELPC Interns Carolyn Bidó and Juliet Cairney

Transportation and climate change go hand in hand. That is because the transportation sector is the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for approximately 29 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions. Heavy-duty vehicles alone generate more than 25 percent of the total global warming emissions from the transportation sector and are a primary source of tailpipe pollution that contribute to and aggravate human health. School buses are particularly concerning because they run on dirty diesel fuel, and children from historically underserved and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the related emissions.

However, we don’t have to keep driving in this direction.

As the automotive industry re-directs itself toward a fully electric future, innovative electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers like the Lion Electric Co. are helping carve the path towards zero-emission school buses.

What are Electric School Buses?

Students stand near an electric school bus in Chicago

Students explore a Lion electric school bus, with the hood up to show the battery.

While electric school buses look almost identical to traditional ones, with the familiar yellow frame and rows of rectangular windows, these buses run on electric power stored in rechargeable batteries rather than diesel internal combustion engines.

Electric school buses produce none of the tailpipe emissions associated with diesel vehicles. This has direct health benefits for the students who ride these buses and ensures a safer workplace environment for the bus driver. In addition, electric school buses can be charged during long periods of inactivity, creating stores of energy that can be discharged back to the grid through Vehicle-to-Grid technology. This can reinforce the stability of the electric grid and can serve as a revenue source for schools.

Data unequivocally shows that electric school buses are:

Who is Lion Electric Company?

A large sparkly new warehouse has rows of electric school buses in the background and a row of workers standing in the foreground.

Lion Electric workers at the new Peoria plant opening on July 21, 2023

Lion Electric Company was founded as Autobus Lion in 2008 and rebranded in 2017. The company debuted its first electric school bus model, the LionC, in 2015; since then, its bus line has expanded to include the LionA, a miniature bus with a 24-passenger capacity, and the LionD, which seats up to 83. Each model is customizable to wheelchair lifts.

In addition to electric buses, the Quebec-based company creates, designs, and builds all-electric class 5 to class 8 commercial urban trucks. Lion believes transitioning to all-electric vehicles will significantly improve our society, environment, and overall quality of life. After significantly pushing for electric heavy-duty vehicles, the company took a roaring step in installing a 900,000-square-foot (approximately 15 football fields) EV manufacturing facility in Joliet, Illinois. It was officially inaugurated on July 21st, 2023. The company chose Illinois because of the state’s resources, domestic supply base and proximity to customers, and Governor J.B. Pritzker’s overall shared goals in achieving sustainability.

Inside Lion Electric Joliet

In a large warehouse, a row of electric school buses in the background while a group of people sits listening to Illinois Governor Pritzker speak

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker speaks at new the Lion Electric Peoria plant, during the grand opening event on July 21, 2023

At first glance, the facility resembled a giant box, but upon entry, the space was astronomically larger than perceived. The facility will focus on medium and heavy-duty commercial vehicle production and estimates a production capacity of 20,000 vehicles per year in a combination of trucks and buses. Lion also expects a manufacturing capacity of 2,500 electric school buses by the end of 2023. In addition to accelerating the green economy, Lion is also bringing green jobs to the City of Joliet, providing 1,400 new positions to residents.

The daylong event began with a press conference in which Lion Electric CEO Marc Bédard, alongside U.S. and Illinois government officials and dignitaries, shared the significance and future outcomes of the facility. Attending government officials included Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, Joliet Mayor Terry D’Arcy, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, U.S. Representatives Bill Foster and Lauren Underwood. After an inspirational diesel fuel hose-cutting ceremony, attending members toured the facility alongside staff to learn about the manufacturing and assembly process while observing electric school buses come to life in real-time.

Also in attendance were members of the ComEd Youth Ambassador Program –a summer enrichment program that aims to promote student interest in STEM and clean energy careers– and the Boys & Girls Club of Chicago.

Onboard an Electric Bus

Three people stand smiling and holding snacks in front of a Lion Electric School bus

ELPC policy interns Juliet & Carolyn, alongside Renew Wisconsin’s Emerging Technology Director Francisco Sayu.

As the Lion Electric school bus arrived in the parking lot, a pleasant jingle accompanied it, serving as a necessary signal due to the bus’s silent electric motor. The lack of noise pollution became noticeable once we took our seats inside the bus.

The ride was quiet and smooth. Without the added noise of a diesel engine, we were able to converse easily throughout the entire bus. It’s easy to see how this noise reduction can facilitate communication between bus drivers and the children onboard.

In addition, this bus ride didn’t exhibit the characteristic cloud of black exhaust, which we immediately noticed while entering and exiting the bus. ELPC staff discussed the headache-inducing diesel tailpipe exhaust, which contains 40 known carcinogens and is proven to trigger asthma attacks. Transporting students on these buses can help avoid these negative health effects and create a healthier learning environment.

The State of Electric School Buses

A group of seven people stands smiling in a warehouse with electric school buses in the background.

ELPC’s Susan Mudd, Genevieve Kwan, and David McEllis along with other clean transportation advocates.

The call for electric school buses is transforming from a choice to an essential step. Public interest has grown 50 percent over the last six months. So far, 354 school districts throughout 36 states have committed over 1,800 buses, and the number is expected to increase with the new rounds of federal grant funding for the EPA Clean School Bus Program and VW Settlement. However, to accelerate and ease the transition, state agencies, city officials, utilities, and private companies must begin to provide more robust support, specifically for school districts with high percentages of students from underserved communities and non-attainment areas.

Through collaborative endeavors like the Alliance for Electric School Buses, the Environmental Law and Policy Center is at the forefront of shaping an equitable future for electric school buses. Their ongoing advocacy focuses on increased funding to enable school districts to embrace electric buses to transport students.

Sources:

  1. The Lion Electric Grand Opening- Press Release
  2. Electric School Bus Initiative- Why We Need to Transition to Electric School Buses
  3. Union of Concerned Scientists- How to Eliminate Pollution from Heavy-Duty Vehicles.
  4. EPA- Carbon Pollution from Transportation
  5. National Geographic- The environmental impacts of cars, explained
  6. The ICCT: U.S. HEAVY-DUTY VEHICLE NOX STANDARDS: UPDATES TO EMISSION LIMITS, TESTING REQUIREMENTS, AND COMPLIANCE PROCEDURES
  7. ALA- Environmental Justice: Addressing the Burden of Air Pollution
  8. Car and Driver- ou’re About to See Way More Electric School Buses—Here’s Why
  9. wgntv- Lion Electric Plant opens in Joliet, bringing 1,400 jobs to city
  10. Illinois government- Gov. Pritzker Celebrates Opening of New Lion Electric Factory in Joliet
  11. Linkedin- Lion Electric Co.