By Shreya Agrawal
More than half of children ages five to fourteen ride a yellow bus to school, amounting to more than seven billion trips per year in the United States. These trips are carried out by 560,000 school buses, more than 90 percent of which are powered by diesel. Not only is the exhaust from burning diesel fuel a major contributor to ozone pollution, acid rain, and climate change, but it is also a detriment to human health, so much so that the World Health Organization classifies it as a known carcinogen. To reduce emissions and improve the health of those in and around school buses, communities are pushing to electrify their fleets.
Diesel particulate matter increases the likelihood of developing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and heart disease, as well as cancer. Because children’s nervous systems are still developing, they have heightened risks associated with inhaling diesel particulate matter. Exposure to bus pollution can result in impaired lung development, brain development, and cognitive function. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by this pollution. Sixty percent of low-income students ride the bus as opposed to 45 percent of non-low-income students, and Black students are more likely to ride the bus compared to non-Black students.
One way that the federal government is working to electrify buses is through the Clean School Bus Program run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Created and funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (P.L. 117-58), the program will award a total of $5 billion between 2022 and 2026 to school districts to replace diesel school buses with zero-emission or “clean” (lower-emission) school buses. (Districts without any diesel buses to replace are unable to participate—a problem for districts looking to acquire buses to move away from leasing with private bus companies). The EPA released its first set of awards in October 2022, granting $913 million for nearly 2,500 new school buses across 391 school districts that serve a combined 2.64 million students. EPA also announced a waitlist made up of 1,400 school districts that requested more than 9,000 additional buses. The next application period is expected to open in the first half of 2023.
The program sets aside half of the funding for zero-emission buses, with the other half available for “clean” school buses, which includes both zero-emission buses and those that use alternative, lower-emission fuels such as propane or compressed natural gas. For the 2022 awards, zero-emission buses accounted for 95 percent of the funded projects.
Clean buses were awarded to school districts in all 50 states as well as American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. For 12 states, including Idaho, Louisiana, and New Hampshire, these rebates will fund the first electric buses in the state. Seventy-five percent of the winning school districts will receive funding for fewer than 10 school buses. Thirty districts will receive the maximum allocation of 25 buses. Of the selected school districts, 82 percent are from rural communities or small towns—these districts will receive 55 percent of the funding. These smaller and more isolated school districts are receiving an average of $1,130 per pupil versus $180 per pupil in the city and suburban school districts. This makes the funding far more transformational for the rural and small-town districts, as it will represent a much bigger budget increase percentage-wise and fund a larger ratio of converted buses. The states set to receive the most money per pupil are Mississippi, South Carolina, Maine, and Rhode Island, respectively.
Electrifying school bus fleets will not only produce positive health and environmental impacts to communities across the country, it will also help the economy. Demand for electric buses funded by the Clean School Bus Program has bolstered U.S. manufacturing and created jobs. This is a big boon to states which make electric buses and their internal components, including Alabama, California, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Jobs will also grow in places supplying components required to build electric buses and their chargers.
One of the biggest challenges with the transition to an electric bus fleet is the need for changes in infrastructure. Electric bus depots use high amounts of energy. To adequately prepare the grid for this high influx in power use, utilities and communities will need to invest in more high-voltage cables, transformers, and substations. While some school districts already have access to this infrastructure and know how to operate an electric bus fleet, many awardees do not. To help these communities with the transition from diesel to electric buses, the EPA has partnered with the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to provide clean school bus technical assistance. These resources will cover a variety of topics such as “electric bus basics, charging equipment, utility connections, bus performance, and operational considerations like routing and maintenance.”
There is still a long way to go. The EPA program, funded at $5 billion over five years, is enough to convert roughly three percent of the country’s school bus fleet. States and localities will need to join the effort, following in the footsteps of Maryland, which recently passed a law requiring all new purchases of school buses to be electric starting in 2025. The hope is that this federal push will provide a broader base of support for this technology, which in turn will reduce costs and other barriers moving forward. “We are making an unprecedented investment in our children’s health, especially those in communities overburdened by air pollution,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said when announcing the first awards. “This is just the beginning of our work to build a healthier future, reduce climate pollution, and ensure the clean, breathable air that all our children deserve.”
This post was previously published on eesi.org and under a Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 4.
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