School Buses Should Go Electric – Here’s How

Vehicles offer huge health and economic benefits

Originally published on CommonWealth Magazine.

By Duncan McIntyre,  CEO of Highland Electric Transportation

DEEP WITHIN Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan for creating a more resilient, sustainable economy is a proposal that deserves wider attention. Under the heading of “position[ing] the American auto industry to win in the 21st century,” Biden proposes a goal of all American-made buses being zero-emission by 2030, starting with “converting all 500,000 school buses in the country to zero emissions.” Practically, that means the next generation of yellow school buses would be electric. That is good news for parents, for communities, and for our economy.

Most of the half million school buses in use across the country today, on which each student spends an average of 180 hours annually, are diesel-powered. Diesel exhaust exposes children to toxic pollutants. Poor air quality is responsible for high rates of asthma, cancer, and heart disease. Children are even more vulnerable to air pollutants than adults, and the hardest hit children are those in disadvantaged communities, which have the highest concentrations of air pollution.

Of course, those yellow buses have largely been idle since March, when schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the impact of their use over the years is felt today. Research by scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has shown that just a small increase in fine-particulate pollution, such as that from the diesel engines of school buses, resulted in a 15 percent increase in the death rate due to COVID-19. Adults who have been breathing pollution-fouled air all their lives are that much more vulnerable to the disease that has brought our economy to a near standstill.

In contrast, electric-powered school buses emit no local air pollution. Electric buses are also cheaper to run, because electricity is cheaper than diesel fuel, with less fluctuation in cost. Maintenance costs are lower, too, because an electric drive train has fewer parts. That means less of school budgets getting put into transportation, and more into classrooms.

Featured image: Proterra Jouley Electric School Bus, courtesy Proterra

Today, leading domestic manufacturers, including Thomas Built and Blue Bird, are selling electric school buses, and municipalities and school districts from Virginia to California are showing interest. In Massachusetts, Thomas Built and Proterra, which is a US-based electric bus technology company, are working with my company, Highland Electric Transportation, and National Grid on an innovative project that will allow the city of Beverly, thanks to a state grant, to take delivery of its first electric school bus while saving the city money.

At Highland Electric Transportation, we provide electric school buses as a service. Municipalities and school districts contract for buses purchased and maintained by Highland. Highland recoups its costs through the operating cost savings yielded by using electric rather than gasoline or diesel vehicles, and also by selling electricity stored in school bus batteries to the power grid during summer months when electricity demand often peaks and school buses stand idle. This new financing and services model can make the transition to electric school buses easier, cheaper, and faster.

Electric vehicles are part of a broader transition to advanced energy technologies that can help drive the economic recovery that Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, is going to need coming out of the public health crisis. Advanced energy is a $238 billion industry in the US, and it has been growing faster than the overall economy for many years. Advanced energy employed 3.6 million Americans in 2019, with employment growth nearly double that of overall US jobs that year.

In Massachusetts, the clean energy industry employed over 100,000 people in 2019. That number has doubled since 2010, and contributed more than $14 billion to the gross state product, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. Over the past 10 years, MassCEC’s programs and investments to support industry growth have brought $2 billion in private capital and federal funding to Massachusetts.

Though advanced energy, like many other industries, was hard hit in the COVID shutdown, with 600,000 jobs lost nationally since March – 16,000 in Massachusetts alone – these jobs are starting to come back. Over 100,000 advanced energy jobs were regained in June, nearly 4,000 here in Massachusetts. Going forward, advanced energy can once again provide an economic boost.

Featured Image courtesy Transdev Canada/Lion Electric.

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