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Amid air-quality concerns, schools start to embrace electric buses

Study finds that use of cleaner fuels benefits students' health

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A diesel-powered school bus is reflected in a mirror at MAST Academy, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Miami. Student Holly Thorpe, 14, urged the Miami-Dade County Public Schools to considering replacing foul-smelling diesel school buses with electric vehicles. The school board voted this week to use a state grant to purchase up to 50 electric buses. Miami-Dade is joining a growing number of school districts transitioning from diesel to more environmentally-friendly electric school buses.
A diesel-powered school bus is reflected in a mirror at MAST Academy, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Miami. Student Holly Thorpe, 14, urged the Miami-Dade County Public Schools to considering replacing foul-smelling diesel school buses with electric vehicles. The school board voted this week to use a state grant to purchase up to 50 electric buses. Miami-Dade is joining a growing number of school districts transitioning from diesel to more environmentally-friendly electric school buses. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (wilfredo lee/ Associated Press) Photo Gallery

BOSTON — For several years, Miami-Dade County Public Schools had toyed with replacing some of its 1,000 diesel buses with cleaner electric vehicles. But school leaders said the change would be too costly.

Then 12-year-old student Holly Thorpe showed up at a school board meeting to tout the benefits of going electric and returned to encourage the district to apply for a state grant.

Two years on, the school board on Wednesday approved a district plan to use state money to replace up to 50 diesel buses with electric models over the next several years.

Thorpe is overjoyed that the district is making the switch. “It wasn’t imaginary anymore,” she said. “It just wasn’t like an idea. It was coming to life.”

The transition is part of a small but growing movement led by parents, students and lawmakers to purchase electric school buses to improve students’ health and cut planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions.

Roughly 25 million children ride school buses every year. And though only about 1 percent of the 480,000 school buses in the U.S. are electric, there are signs that the push to abandon diesel buses is gaining momentum:

• Late last year, the World Resources Institute announced a $37.5 million Bezos Earth Fund grant to help electrify all school buses in the country by 2030. The nonprofit will work over the next five years on the project with school districts, communities, environmental justice groups, utilities, bus manufacturers and policymakers.

• This year, a suburban Maryland district became the country’s largest to commit to going completely electric. It plans to replace 1,442 diesel buses by 2035. The first 326 electric ones will be leased from Massachusetts-based Highland Electric Transportation.

• California, the country’s electric school bus leader, has funded the purchase of 1,167 and budgeted for another 1,000 over the next three fiscal years.

“This is an opportunity to make sure that we are doing all we can to protect kids’ health,” said California Energy Commission member Patty Monahan. “Some of these kids in parts of Los Angeles are on the bus for an hour, two hours a day. So we want to make sure that they are breathing clean air.”

At Twin Rivers Unified School District in Northern California, where diesel buses have been replaced by 40 electric buses and 34 that run on compressed natural gas, officials say clouds of dirty air have disappeared.

“One of the drivers said, ‘I can’t believe the change I’m seeing in my lifetime,’” said Tim Shannon, the district’s director of transportation services. “He said, ‘I used to have to hold a handkerchief over my face to walk through the yard because of the thick diesel soot.’”

The electric buses are 60 percent cheaper to operate and will pay for themselves over time, Shannon said.

Some districts are planning to sell excess energy from batteries back to the grid, a move welcomed by utilities, which themselves have launched programs to buy electric school buses. This summer, a school bus in a Massachusetts district delivered power back to the grid.

Efforts to replace diesel school buses are driven by the fact that children are more susceptible to health impacts of air pollution. Exposure to diesel exhaust, according to the EPA, can lead to asthma and respiratory illnesses and worsen heart and lung ailments, especially in children and the elderly.

A study of school buses in Washington state found using cleaner fuels or upgrading older diesel vehicles reduced children’s exposure to airborne particles by as much as 50 percent and improved their health. Their findings suggest that a nationwide switch to cleaner school buses could result in about 14 million fewer absences each year. The researchers at the universities of Washington and Michigan did not examine electric buses, which produce less local pollution than those using fossil fuels.

Lead author Sara Adar, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said using older diesel buses resulted in children in the Seattle area “getting higher levels of air pollution during their commute.”

“The pollutants those kids were experiencing also did seem to be linked to worse health,” she said. “We saw kids’ lungs weren’t quite as healthy.”

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