For several years, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools 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. She came prepared to tout the benefits of going electric. She returned to encourage the district to apply for a state grant.
Two years later, the school board on Wednesday approved a district plan to replace up to 50 diesel buses with electric models over the next several years.
Thorpe is overjoyed the district is making the switch. “It wasn’t imaginary anymore,” says the now-teen. “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 switch to electric school buses.
Roughly 25 million children ride school buses every year. And though only about 1% of 480,000 U.S. school buses are electric, there are signs that suggest 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. The state has budgeted for another 1,000 over the next three fiscal years.
California Energy Commission member Patty Monahan says the main goal is protecting kids’ health. “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, diesel buses have been replaced. The district now has 40 electric and 34 that run on compressed natural gas. Officials say the area’s dirty air is noticeably more pure.
Tim Shannon is the district’s director of transportation services. He says one driver expressed appreciation for the change. “He said, ‘I used to have to hold a handkerchief over my face to walk through the yard because of the thick diesel soot.’”
Shannon considers the new buses a good investment. He claims electric buses are 60% cheaper to operate and will pay for themselves over time. With rising gasoline and diesel costs, that’s an added benefit—as long as other energy sources, which provide the battery charges to operate the vehicles, don’t likewise rise.
Efforts to replace diesel school buses are driven by the fact that children are susceptible to health impacts of air pollution. Exposure to diesel exhaust, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can lead to asthma and respiratory illnesses. It can also worsen heart and other lung ailments, especially in children and the elderly.
Over the last 15 years, the EPA has required diesel engines to clean up their act some. Today, diesel school bus engines are much more efficient than they once were. They produce up to 90% less particulate matter (pollution) than models did 20 years ago. With those improved standards, the diesel industry is pushing back against the electric movement. Diesel spokespeople like Allen Schaeffer say moving to electric now won’t change much more in the way of emissions. Plus, they point out, many electric vehicles still charge batteries using electricity sources that come from fossil fuels.
“School districts should be able to choose the bus type and technology that works for them,” says Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. “Some may find electric buses a good fit while others will stick with diesel.”
Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. — 1 Timothy 4:12
(Holly Thorpe, now 14, stands in front of a school bus at MAST Academy on September 29, 2021, in Miami, Florida. She urged the public school district to begin replacing diesel buses with electric vehicles. AP/Wilfredo Lee)