Future of Travel

Why electric school buses could be a star in the clean-energy transition

“Switching to electric school buses, we know, will play a really important role in creating a healthier environment,” the CEO of the American Lung Association said.
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Zum

4 min read

With over 20 million daily riders, the US school bus system is the country’s largest form of mass transportation—and therefore stands to play a major role in the clean-energy transition.

That was the consensus during a May 15 panel on the benefits of electric school buses hosted by the Zero Emission Transportation Association.

“The most significant benefit that we see for electric school buses is the benefit for children to breathe cleaner air,” Carolina Chacon Mendonza, coalition manager for the Alliance for Electric School Buses, said on the panel. “There is no amount of exposure to diesel pollution that is safe for children.”

“Black students, children with disabilities, children from tribal nations, and low-income students rely on diesel school buses more than their peers,” reflecting a disparity in who is exposed to the vehicles’ harmful diesel emissions, according to Sue Gander, director of the Electric School Bus Initiative at the World Resources Institute.

Nearly four out of 10 people in the US live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s latest State of the Air report. And heavy-duty vehicles like school buses contribute a disproportionate amount of this pollution, according to ALA CEO Harold Wimmer.

“Switching to electric school buses, we know, will play a really important role in creating a healthier environment,” he said, citing a 2022 ALA report that estimated $735 billion in cumulative health benefits and 66,800 avoided deaths could be achieved by 2050 by eliminating emissions from heavy-duty transportation.

Enter electric school buses, some 8,800 of which are on the road today or will be soon, according to the panel (still a small proportion of the roughly half a million school buses in the country’s fleet). The Environmental Protection Agency has allocated $5 billion through 2026 to help school districts electrify their vehicle fleets, and the agency recently made another $1 billion in funding available to decarbonize the heavy-duty vehicle sector; 70% of that funding is for school buses.

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“Every school district in the country should be applying for these funds,” Nate Baguio, SVP of commercial development for electric school bus manufacturer Lion Electric, said. Lion even offers to write grant applications on behalf of school districts to help expedite the process, he said.

At least one school district is ahead of the curve: California’s Oakland Unified School District is slated to become the first major US school district to have a 100% electric school bus fleet, according to a May 15 press release from transportation services provider Zum. The fleet will be delivered by the start of the 2024–2025 school year, per Zum.

And that’s not all: The fleet will be equipped with vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, enabling it to send energy back to the power grid to the tune of 2.1 gigawatt hours annually, according to the announcement. Zum will provide the district with 74 electric buses as well as the bidirectional chargers that enable V2G capabilities.

The school district received funding from EPA’s Clean School Bus program, as well as from state and local resources. Zum is working on similar initiatives for larger school districts, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“This historic milestone is a win-win proposition: Electric school buses with V2G provide students with cleaner, fume-free transportation and allow us to send untapped energy from the bus batteries back to the grid,” Zum founder and CEO Ritu Narayan said in the press release, “creating an enormous impact on grid resilience.”

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