With electric school buses, kids can breathe a little easier
In Virginia, Dominion Energy proposed the nation’s most ambitious electric school bus plan, but where are the rest of the states?
Kids across the country return to school this month, and millions of them will be riding the bus to get there. But here’s the problem: Most of those buses run on diesel — a highly polluting fuel that causes respiratory illness, worsens asthma and has been linked to poor school performance.
Children, whose lungs are still developing, are especially susceptible to the negative health effects of diesel exhaust. Still, day in and day out, we put them on those big yellow school buses that put their health at risk.
What’s equally troubling is the emissions from those buses not only put our kids’ health at risk, but also jeopardize the future of the planet they live on. These buses travel over 4 billion miles every year, making them the largest form of mass transit in the country. With transportation being the nation’s number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, changing all aspects of travel is essential if we want any chance of stopping the worst effects of climate change — from increasingly strong and damaging storms, flooding and sea level rise, and more frequent and devastating forest fires.
School buses should be an elementary place to start.
Dominion Energy, a Virginia utility company, has proposed to do something about this in its state. The company recently announced an initiative to assist in transitioning Virginia’s school districts to electric school buses. Fifty will hit the roads in the next year, 1,000 more over the next five years, and, by 2030, only electric buses will be bought by districts in the state, according to the utility.
The program, most of which still needs to be approved by the Virginia state legislature, is the largest organized electric school bus effort in the country.
In order to do this, Dominion has agreed to pay the difference in price between diesel buses and electric buses plus cover charging infrastructure costs for eligible districts. For those districts, it doesn’t make sense not to choose electric over diesel.
The health and climate impacts of electric buses are clear. With zero-tailpipe emissions, electric buses drastically reduce our kids’ exposure to unhealthy and toxic pollution. In terms of greenhouse gas reductions, switching just one bus from diesel to electric is the equivalent of taking 30 cars off the road.
But the financials have been harder for school districts to pencil out. While electric buses offer annual savings on fuel and maintenance and have lower lifetime costs than diesel buses, the more expensive purchase price remains a barrier. By equalizing that cost, Dominion’s proposal removes the barrier that concerns many school districts the most.
But that’s just Virginia. Where is the rest of the country? Dominion isn’t the first utility to implement a program to help finance electric school buses. Utilities in California and New York are also testing out similar models, just not on the same scale as Dominion yet. A few other states are implementing or have implemented small pilot programs, including Massachusetts and Minnesota. But, by and large, the school bus industry is still dominated by diesel.
Dominion deserves credit for taking bold action and being a leader in clean transportation for our kids. Utilities across the country should take note and follow Dominion’s lead. There is no reason we should keep putting our kids on buses that are making them sick and making the climate crisis worse when there is a better option.
Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.