Todd Watkins had no idea he’d become famous because of a school bus transaction.
Watkins made headlines as the Director of Transportation for Montgomery Public Schools in Maryland when he decided to replace his district’s diesel school buses with cleaner, electric ones. Unbeknownst to him, the contract he signed with Highland Electric Transportation in February to lease 326 vehicles for four years and eventually replace the whole 1,422 vehicle fleet turned out to be the single largest purchase of electric school buses in the United States.
“It’s come from the entire school bus sector, from the electric vehicle sector, from the environmental business—everyone has been pleasantly thrilled by this decision, and it wasn’t my intent,” Watkins adds. “I had no clue how this would affect all of those worlds.”
Watkins and his staff put out a request to find a budget-neutral strategy to replace diesel buses in his district’s fleet after being astonished to hear key school bus industry executives forecast a complete move toward electric at a conference five years ago. They also felt pressure from kids and environmental organizations. Highland Electric provided him with everything he needed, including a system that was ready to use right away, charging infrastructure installation and maintenance, electric payment, and dealing with the utility provider.
Watkins’ choice is part of a more significant trend toward cleaner, healthier transportation for the country’s youth. Taking aging diesel buses off the road may help kids’ health, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and is a great way to put bidirectional electric vehicle technology to work. The most significant obstacle to the entrance for America’s infamously budget-strapped schools is up-front expenditures. Still, activists’ and politicians’ past and present efforts may be moving us closer to sustainable energy transportation for children.
More than 25 million students take the bus to school every day across the country, making the 480,000 buses the country’s largest fleet of vehicles—and just a few hundred or so school buses have switched to electric power. According to the Energy Information Administration, diesel emissions accounted for about a quarter of overall transportation sector CO2 emissions and approximately 9% of overall energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019.
An increasing body of evidence demonstrates that air pollution, particularly from unclean diesel buses, has significant health and cognitive consequences. Children in impoverished neighborhoods are more likely to be affected. If their family does not possess a car or their parents do not have time to drive, children from low-income homes may have little alternative but to take them to school.
“[School buses] release hundreds of harmful chemicals into the air, exacerbating the climate problem in disadvantaged areas across the country,” says Athena Motavvef of Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest environmental litigation group. “And thousands of children, particularly Black and Brown youngsters, inhale these pollutants every day.”
Environmental and health racism can be shown in the health consequences of pollution exposure, such as asthma and cardiovascular disease. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, Hispanic children are 40 percent more likely than non-Hispanic white children to die from asthma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14.5 percent of Black kids have asthma than 7.7 percent of White kids.
Meanwhile, a 2015 research found that using clean fuels and technologies on school buses decreased children’s exposure to dangerous contaminants while also improving their health. A 2019 study focused on kids who moved to a school located downwind of a highway, allowing researchers to evaluate if their new, increased exposure to pollution affected the children’s academic performance. Compared to their previous school performance, individuals exposed to higher pollution had lower test scores, more behavioral issues, and more absences. A 2019 study indicated that diesel school bus retrofits enhanced both student health and academic achievement.
“People constantly find that cleaner air is better for them in a variety of respects, in terms of their health, in terms of their cognitive function,” says Daniel Kreisman, co-author of the diesel retrofits research and Associate Professor of Economics at Georgia State University who studies education finance and policy.
However, while evidence suggests that switching to cleaner school buses can have significant health advantages, the initial expenses of these more expensive vehicles should be avoided, especially in districts where finances are already pushed low.
Watkins’ district reached a budget-neutral agreement thanks to a fixed-cost finance approach in which the community pays an average of $43,000 per bus each year for the equipment’s 12-year lifespan rather than paying the whole cost upfront. On the other hand, Highland Electric pays all additional costs, from energy to maintenance, and reaps the advantages of any government incentives and decreased fuel costs associated with electrification. Watkins hopes to spread the news about this strategy to other schools or parties that are interested.
“I truly believe Highland was the forerunners here,” Watkins adds. “They found out how to get people to start doing this by removing all of the anxieties and excuses.”
Although greener buses cost more up front than diesel buses, school districts can save money on operation and maintenance over time. According to John Boesel, president, and CEO of the clean energy transportation nonprofit CALSTART, electric buses cut these expenses in half, and maybe up to 75 percent, because more sanitary technology does not require filter maintenance or oil and transmission fluid changes.
Beyond lower maintenance costs, the economic appeal of electrification of any vehicle stems from the fact that this technology is not subject to oil market volatility; therefore, more extraordinary up-front expenses can be offset by long-term fuel savings. However, because school buses seldom travel long distances, this trade-off isn’t always necessary—unless bidirectional charging is employed.
To assist alleviate demand surges, bidirectional charging allows energy to be taken from a battery and delivered back to the electrical system. Because school buses are rarely utilized during the summer or peak hours of the day (between 4 and 7 p.m.), selling power back to the grid can be profitable, helping to offset the vehicles’ higher up-front expenses. “That changes everything because they are a great application for vehicle-to-grid, bidirectional charging,” says Daniel Sperling, founding director of the University of California, Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies. He believes that switching school bus fleets to electric, vehicle-to-grid systems might pave the way for a more significant transition to bidirectional charging for all EV vehicles and fleets, perhaps laying the groundwork for this move to reach people’s garages.
Another method to reduce financial problems is for the government to help with the changeover. The Clean Commute for Kids Act, which would invest $25 billion in converting diesel school buses to zero-emission vehicles, was proposed on April 21 by four senators and members of Congress. Fourty percent of the money would be used to replace school buses in low-income areas.
“I believe [the largest hurdle to widespread EV school bus use] is overcoming that cost barrier, and what is wonderful about this government policy is that they want to offer funds to assist solve that,” adds Boesel.
Several education and environmental policy organizations have endorsed the bill. However, this is not a new request for government help.
Through their Clean Buses for Healthy Nios campaign, Chispa, a Latinx affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), has advocated for EV school buses for years. They’ve lobbied state governors to utilize cash from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, which was established when the automaker cheated on federal emissions testing. They’ve employed a grassroots organization to achieve their aims.
“Thinking about this generation of asthmatics—that stirred up some of the parents who wanted clean, healthy air for their kids to play outside without having to cough up a storm,” says Pita Juarez, LCV’s National Communications and Creative Strategies Director. “As a result, this wonderful movement of all these parents getting together, sending letters, testifying, making digital media with us, expressing their experiences so that we can illustrate what environmental racism looks like for communities of color,” says the author.
According to Juarez, it’s fantastic to see more people get on board with clean bus technology, but she hopes to see federal action trickle down to state-level, too. According to Boesel, state incentive schemes, such as one in California that gives vouchers to pay expenditures over and beyond those of a diesel bus, are another viable option for assisting this shift.
Despite the financial and technological challenges, Juarez believes it is critical to continue pushing this movement ahead to better the lives of children all around the country.
“It’s critical to concentrate on the humanity of it,” Juarez adds. “Every every day, this issue has an impact on people’s health and lives.”