Bobby Monacella was tired of sending her two children to school on buses full of diesel fumes. Pollution inside these iconic yellow buses can be up to 10 times higher than outside.
“You sit on the bus for over an hour a day, and when you find out that the emissions are concentrated in the bus, that’s frightening,” says Monacella, who volunteers for the “Mothers out Front” climate group.
So she teamed up with other mothers in Fairfax County, Virginia, to do something about it. The country’s second largest school district has agreed to replace its 1,650 diesel buses with electric buses by 2035.
However, other families have to expect longer waiting times.
The infrastructure package proposed by the Senate and the White House on Wednesday offers significantly less funding for electric school buses than President Biden is aiming for.
And without a government infusion of money and incentives, proponents fear that zero-emission school buses – which can cost three times as much as those with internal combustion engines – could be unevenly distributed, potentially leaving low-income families and color students who are already bearing the brunt of the pollution.
“The schools that can afford to make the switch and pay for not only the school bus but also the necessary charging infrastructure are in the predominantly more affluent communities,” said Trisha DelloIacono, legislative manager of Moms Clean Air Force. “So federal investment is so necessary.”
Electric school buses would receive $ 2.5 billion under the package, enough for about 11,000 zero-emission buses. Another $ 2.5 billion would go towards what lawmakers and the White House call low-emission buses.
The lump sum is significantly less than the $ 174 billion originally proposed by Biden last March to boost the entire electric vehicle market, including cars, trucks and buses. This plan aimed to electrify 96,000 school buses, or about 20% of the US fleet.
“We need full funding,” said Sybil Azur, a mother and community organizer working to expand the use of electric school buses in Los Angeles. “It’s about my children’s future, my children’s health and their ability to lead productive, healthy lives.”
They and other proponents fear that the allocation for “low-emission” school buses in the infrastructure package could give other types of fuel priority over electrical engineering.
“Essentially, this is a small drop in the bucket to protect our children from harmful diesel pollution,” DelloIacono said. “To make matters worse, it does not help our children at all if it is used to pollute buses with fossil fuels under the pretext of improving the infrastructure of our country.”
There are 480,000 school buses across the country, 95% of which run on highly polluting diesel fuel. And more than half of the country’s public schools, around 25 million children, take the bus to and from school every day.
Research by Environment & Human Health Inc. has shown that pollution on these school buses is often five to ten times higher than the surrounding area, putting student health at risk and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The transportation sector is the single largest source of CO2 pollution in the country.
While scientists have long known that diesel pollution can cause a variety of health problems, including asthma and bronchitis, developmental disorders, and cancer, recent research suggests the health effects could be worse than previously thought.
A meta-analysis of hundreds of studies published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2018 found strong links between pollution and cardiovascular disease. Another study published in 2018 by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that air pollution made dementia significantly worse. Even a slight increase in air pollution from a single car can bring more children to hospital and lead to premature births, according to a 2019 Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago working paper.
Pollution is worse for children, whose brains are still developing, than for adults. And black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma as white children and are four times more likely to die from the disease. Latino children are also at higher risk.
Because of this, Cinthia Moore, a mother and lawyer who lives in a mostly Latino neighborhood in East Las Vegas, won’t let her son Liam ride the school bus.
“He has breathing problems,” she explained. “Whenever we have a day with poor air quality, like today when he is outside, he comes back with a cold and sneezing, and he has rashes on his body because of the extreme heat.”
Mothers out Front’s Monacella said the details of funding and charging infrastructure location can determine whether electric school buses are fairly distributed.
She pointed to a pilot program in Virginia where Dominion Energy deployed 50 electric school buses as part of a larger vehicle-to-grid plan. Monacella said she feared the utility might not give priority to low-income school districts.
“Dominion will help pay some fine; maybe our government grant fund will help pay some fines; and the more the better, ”she said. “But the way the Dominion program was set up, they wanted to own the batteries and charging infrastructure, and they wanted to tell where they could be placed. So it didn’t matter where the highest asthma rates were; the lowest air quality didn’t matter. It only counted what worked for them. “
A Dominion spokesman said the utility has deployed its 50 electric school buses in geographically and economically diverse districts and plans to weigh equity concerns as it expands its vehicle-to-grid program.
“Every student in the Commonwealth deserves access to safe, zero-emission school transportation, and our goal is to help school districts make that transition,” spokeswoman Samantha Moore wrote in an email.
As health effects related to climate-related events such as extreme heat or forest fires become more common in children, parents increasingly urge their elected representatives to act.
“If your child has difficulty breathing due to forest fire smoke due to climate change, it is vital for these families to put a child on an electric school bus and not be exposed to this additional pollution,” said DelloIacono of Moms Clean Air Force.
“And so they were really at the forefront of this transition to electric school buses.”
Reducing emissions from school buses would save up to 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. And while electric buses are currently more expensive to purchase than their diesel counterparts, schools could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs, according to a recent report conducted by the US PIRG Education Fund.
“A new federal infusion is so important because it can really help fund upfront costs,” said John Stout, a transportation attorney with US PIRG.
Despite funding hurdles, the momentum for electric school buses is growing as the infrastructure debate intensifies on Capitol Hill.
Last year, a school district in Sacramento, California, owned the country’s largest fleet of electric school buses with 40 zero-emission buses. A county in Tennessee secured the state’s first all-electric school bus last month. In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools announced a contract earlier this year to replace all of their diesel buses with electric ones, starting with 326 buses over a four-year period. The list goes on.
A recent poll by the American Lung Association found that 68 percent of American voters from all major demographics support Congressional nationwide investment in zero-emission school buses.
That month, over 100 local school officials across the country signed a letter to Biden and Congress calling for a federal investment of $ 30 billion over 10 years to replace half of the country’s school bus fleet with electric buses .
Several legislators have passed similar laws. A measure recently approved by Reps Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) And Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), As well as Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) And Raphael Warnock (D-GA) would change the amount by US $ 25 billion grants the country’s school bus fleet over 10 years, with low-income communities and communities at the forefront being a priority.
Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) Also tabled a bill earlier this year, originally tabled by former Senator Kamala Harris in 2019, that would allow school districts to replace diesel buses with electric buses.
While many uncertainties remain – such as how the charging infrastructure can best be installed – the electrification of the country’s school bus fleet is a decisive step, not only to protect the health of children, but also to reduce CO2 emissions. There are four times more school buses on the road than local public transport buses.
“Climate change is happening all around us. It’s past the crisis time, ”she said. The electrification of school buses “is only part of the puzzle, but I think it can have a big impact and I can try to make a difference.”
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2021. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.