BOSTON (AP) – For several years, Miami-Dade County public schools have had fun replacing some of their 1,000 diesel buses with cleaner electric vehicles. But school leaders said the change would be too costly.
Then, 12-year-old student Holly Thorpe showed up at a school board meeting to tout the benefits of going electric and returned to encourage the district to apply for a state grant.
Two years later, the school board on Wednesday approved a district plan to use state money to replace up to 50 diesel buses with electric models over the next few years.
Thorpe is thrilled the district is making the switch. âIt was no longer imaginary,â she said. âIt just wasn’t like an idea. It was coming to life. “
The transition is part of a small but growing movement by parents, students and lawmakers to buy electric school buses to improve student health and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that warm the planet.
About 25 million children take the school bus each year. And although only about 1% of America’s 480,000 school buses are electric, there are signs that the push to move away from diesel buses is gathering momentum:
– Late last year, the World Resources Institute announced a $ 37.5 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund to help electrify all school buses across the country by 2030. The non-profit organization Lucrative will work over the next five years on the project with school districts, communities and environmental justice groups. , utilities, bus manufacturers and policy makers.
– This year, a suburban Maryland district became the largest in the country to commit to switching entirely to electricity. It plans to replace 1,442 diesel buses by 2035. The first 326 electric buses will be leased from Massachusetts-based Highland Electric Transportation.
– California, the nation’s leader in electric school buses, has funded the purchase of 1,167 and budgeted another 1,000 over the next three fiscal years.
âThis is an opportunity to make sure we are doing everything we can to protect the health of children,â said Patty Monahan, member of the California Energy Commission. âSome of these kids in parts of Los Angeles are on the bus for an hour, two hours a day. So we want to make sure they breathe clean air.
In the Twin Rivers Unified School District in northern California, where diesel buses have been replaced with 40 electric buses and 34 that run on compressed natural gas, officials say clouds of dirty air have faded away.
âOne of the drivers said ‘I can’t believe the change I’m seeing in my life,’ said Tim Shannon, director of district transportation services. “He said ‘I used to hold a handkerchief over my face to walk in the yard because of the thick diesel soot.'”
Electric buses are 60% cheaper to operate and will pay for themselves over time, Shannon said.
Some districts are planning to sell excess battery power back to the grid, a move hailed by utilities, which have themselves initiated programs to purchase electric school buses. This summer, a school bus in a district in Massachusetts put electricity back into the grid.
Efforts to replace diesel school buses are motivated by the fact that children are more sensitive to the health effects of air pollution. Exposure to diesel exhaust fumes, according to the EPA, can cause asthma and respiratory diseases and make heart and lung conditions worse, especially in children and the elderly.
Washington state school bus study found using cleaner fuels or upgrading to older diesel reduced children’s exposure to airborne particles by up to 50% and improved their health. Their results suggest that a nationwide move to cleaner school buses could lead to around 14 million fewer absences each year. Researchers at the universities of Washington and Michigan did not examine electric buses, which produce less local pollution than those using fossil fuels.
Principal author Sara adar, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said older diesel buses resulted in Seattle-area children “getting higher levels of pollution from the air. air during their journeys “.
âThe pollutants these children experience also seemed to be linked to poor health,â she said. “We saw that children’s lungs weren’t so healthy.”
School bus diesel engines are much cleaner because the EPA has standards in place that require them to produce 90% less particulate matter. The EPA has also awarded $ 55 million to replace more than 2,700 old diesel school buses since 2012 and announced in October that an additional $ 17 million would be available.
With improved standards, the diesel industry argues that switching to electric will not significantly reduce emissions or resolve concerns about global warming – especially since electricity for buses still often comes from of fossil fuels. They note that over 54% of school buses are newer models with significantly lower emissions.
âSchool districts should be able to choose the type of bus and the technology that is right for them,â said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. “Some may find electric buses a good fit, while others will stick to diesel and use low-carbon renewable fuels to reduce their carbon footprint and other emissions.”
Proponents point out that nearly half of diesel buses are older buses that produce dangerous pollutants and are much more expensive to maintain. But they recognize that the challenge is to get districts with funds for older buses to switch to electric buses, which often cost three times as much.
Many districts are considering funding multiple bills in Congress.
The nearly $ 1 trillion infrastructure bill includes $ 5 billion for electric and hybrid school buses. U.S. Democratic Senator Patty Murray, a former preschool teacher who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions, and other advocates want $ 5 billion more for electric school buses in the President Joe Biden’s $ 3.5 trillion reconstruction plan.
Many congressional bills would provide billions more for electric school buses.
Some states, including Florida and Virginia, buy electric buses with billions of dollars from Volkswagen regulations of its diesel emissions fraud scandal.
Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district would use $ 11.6 million from the settlement to start purchasing electric buses, but said a full transition would be impossible without federal help.
“If we, as a nation, prioritize protecting the environment, reducing greenhouse gases, maximizing new technologies that reduce our dependence on carbon fuels, then the federal investment must spur these transitions with real funding, âhe said. âAnd that’s exactly what our country needs. This is exactly what Miami needs.