yellow school bus under blue sky
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A child rides a bus to school every day — the traditionally big yellow one that runs on diesel gas. Day in and day out, children are exposed to the fumes emitted by the bus, breathing carbon dioxide like it’s fresh air on what should be an otherwise safe journey to school. After several years of this toxic exposure, the child develops asthma; they can no longer play sports, face a heightened risk of infections like COVID-19, and lose three years to their average life expectancy. The worst part of this tragedy is that it all could’ve been avoided. Had the school bus been electric instead of diesel, its passengers would have faced no toxic emissions and been spared of irreparable lung damage. Shared by countless others across the nation, especially those in underserved communities, this story highlights the urgent need for school districts to convert their fleets to electric school buses and protect the health of students and surrounding communities. Furthermore, thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which designates $5 billion in federal funding for clean school buses, it has never been easier for school districts to take a step toward the future and transition from diesel-powered school buses to fully electric ones.

By electrifying their bus fleets, school districts will be prioritizing the health of both their students and the community at large, contributing to environmental justice, and saving money down the road. According to the Healthy Schools Campaign, the exhaust from diesel buses contains “40+ toxic air contaminants, carcinogens, ozone smog-forming compounds, and fine particulate matter,” all of which can have devastating impacts on the health of students as well as the surrounding environment. Diesel buses not only pollute the lungs of their passengers, but they also affect air quality through their emissions, especially considering that large portions of the day are spent driving and waiting idly. Ross Cities estimates that full electrification of the national school bus fleet would lower greenhouse gas emissions by eight megatons per year, which is significant as transportation is the largest contributor to total U.S. emissions. Additionally, the impacts of electrification would be felt most in low-income and minority communities, who have been exposed to toxic contaminants disproportionately more than any other group. Aside from the humanitarian impact, electric school buses also offer direct benefits to school districts. Based on data from the Modesto Unified School District, they can save $10,000 a year on gas per bus. Electric school buses can even be plugged into as an excess power source in the event of a grid failure. Because of electric school buses’ undeniable advantages, districts must utilize this immense opportunity to electrify their fleets created by the Infrastructure Bill.

At the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition, we host a series of events and projects to showcase electric school buses, assist with project planning and grant writing, as well as education and training for school district staff, board members and other stakeholders. Our multilayered approach helps to achieve the goal of not only connecting schools with dealers, manufacturers and electric vehicle supply equipment providers but also increasing familiarity between school districts and the electric school bus industry.

The best example is our Mid-Atlantic Electric School Bus Experience Project (MEEP), which provides school fleets with free electric buses to test over a six-to-eight-week demo period. Through practical experience, technical training, and proper planning with electric buses, school districts can better acquaint themselves with the processes of electrification and upkeep of their fleets. MEEP bridges the gap of understanding between districts and electrification, often giving the necessary information on questions such as how to acquire charging stations and how to retrofit or repower existing diesel buses to make them electric. As the need for electric school buses becomes more and more pressing, the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition is dedicated to facilitating and advocating for the electrification of electric school buses locally, regionally, and nationally.

Antoine M. Thompson is the executive director of the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition (GWRCCC) and a former New York State senator and the former chair of the state Senate Committee of Environmental Conservation.

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