After a far too typical southern summer of hot, dry weeks interspersed with intense storms, fall has arrived in all its glory. Humidity levels have finally dropped. Leaves are turning yellow, brown, red, and orange—as chlorophyll in tree leaves breaks down with cooler temperatures and shorter days, no longer absorbing sunlight for the magic of photosynthesis. Cicadas have stopped singing the iconic soundtrack of summer; post-reproduction, their insect life cycles are ending.
On the streets of the city, I see signs of autumn in yellow school buses full of students who are returning to classrooms. More than half of all schoolchildren in the United States—about twenty-six million—rely on nearly 500,000 school buses: the largest mass transit system in the country. An article published several years ago in Smithsonian magazine observed, “The yellow school bus has become a powerful representation of education and access in American history… literally a vehicle of change.”
Eighty years ago, school transportation officials chose a color now called National School Bus Glossy Yellow as the standard for all buses for safety (high visibility), consistency, and cost-savings. That decision has served the test of time well. The fuel used to power the buses has not had a similar trajectory. Long considered a reliable workhorse to move heavy vehicles in all sorts of weather, diesel is now known to cause a variety of health problems, especially in children. The fuel is also more expensive and less efficient than alternatives.
Studies have confirmed that toxic emissions and particulate matter from diesel vehicles contribute to air pollution and cause health issues: asthma, respiratory illness, cancer, cognitive impairment, and even premature death from long-term exposure. Alternative-fuel advocates note that children from low-income communities of color often rely more heavily on buses to get to school and are disproportionately impacted by higher exposure to diesel emissions. Still, more than 95 percent of school buses nationwide use diesel.
When Sam Ham attended a conference for officials working in large urban school systems in 2015, his perspective on diesel fuel changed dramatically. Then the transportation director for Fulton County Schools, Ham had long believed diesel was the best power source for school buses. As transportation officials from around the country sang the praises of propane, instead of diesel, Ham says it got his attention. Looking at the total cost of ownership, it became clear to him that the alternative fuel “beat diesel hands down.”
Ham was determined to convert at least half his fleet of 900 buses to propane, a much cleaner burning fuel that produces fewer particulates and less greenhouse gases per gallon—and did. With easier maintenance and cheaper fuel and repairs than diesel, he says the county saves thousands of dollars per bus per year. About five years ago, Ham decided he wanted to try an electric school bus to stay at the forefront of the industry. With state and county funds, he purchased an ESB.
At $350,000 or more per bus, ESBs are currently two to three times the cost of a diesel bus and a charging station adds $30,000—not insignificant sums. Ham expects these costs to decrease over time, noting that flat-screen televisions were once cost-prohibitive for most people. Transportation experts believe that upfront price parity with diesel buses will be reached by the end of this decade.
As with any new technology, there are logistical issues, partnerships to be developed, and deep-rooted opinions to surmount. Ham also admits that an ESB is not for every school route, but he says they are “perfect” for high-density areas where the buses travel relatively short distances and are used just a few hours per day. ESBs now have ranges of more than 100 miles—and up to 155 miles—on a single charge.
Operating cost savings per bus per year ($4,000 to $11,000) are a major purchase inducement, in addition to zero tailpipe emissions, leading to cleaner air for school children and a practical solution for the climate crisis. Down the road, there will also be opportunities for school districts to take advantage of vehicle-to-grid technology that allows the high-capacity ESB batteries to give back (sell) to the power grid to help offset peak power demands. When communities have power emergencies, this technology could also serve as a back-up power supply.
A Game Changer
Upfront costs have been the primary obstacle for cash-strapped school districts to transition from diesel to ESBs until last year, when the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed Congress. Sam Ham calls the legislation “a game changer;” it provides $5 billion in funding over five years to help school districts replace existing buses with low and zero-emission vehicles.
The first round of applications for the federal program have been submitted. Funding in the form of rebates will be awarded by a lottery system in October. More than fifty school districts in Georgia have taken advantage of this grant opportunity with assistance from nonprofit organizations, such as Mothers & Others for Clean Air (MOCA), Electrification Coalition, and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Turnkey solutions have been offered by Blue Bird, manufacturer of ESBs in Georgia, and its dealer Yancey.
In August, nonprofit groups and their public and private partners held a press conference to support the electrification of school bus fleets. Longtime clean air advocates, including MOCA co-founders Laura Turner Seydel and Stephanie Blank and co-chair Gwen Lynn, participated along with EPA Regional Administrator Daniel Blackman. The Electrification Coalition’s Anne Blair summarized the compelling reasons to move to ESBs: “Electric bus technology provides a huge opportunity for schools to reduce cost, cut our dependence on oil, and provide a cleaner, healthier ride to school for our kids.”