Honk if you support climate and kids’ health! First electric school buses hitting Michigan roads

A $13 million investment will provide 17 electric school buses to 7 districts, cutting carbon emissions, reducing student absences associated with diesel exhaust pollution, and saving costs for school districts. Vehicle-to-grid research components of pilot programs promise extended benefits.

This month, Michigan government, education, energy, and environmental leaders gathered to kick-off the state’s first electric school bus pilot programs and celebrate the rollout of electric school buses to seven Michigan school districts. The Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation pilot project will invest roughly $13 million to support the purchase of 17 electric school buses and charging stations, sponsored by grant awards sourced from a $3 billion legal settlement fund emerging from the Volkswagen emissions scandal. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) administers the grant funds for the state, which was allocated approximately $65 million from the settlement.  

Ann Arbor and Roseville school districts will use their $1.5 million to purchase Thomas Built Jouley buses, powered by Proterra battery and propulsion systems, and install charging infrastructure in partnership with DTE Energy. These clean, quiet buses can drive 120 miles on a full 3-hour charge. Canada’s Lion electric bus company will provide the buses transporting children in Gaylord, Kalamazoo, Oxford, Three Rivers, and Zeeland school districts. AEP, Consumers Energy, and the Michigan Municipal Electric Association are partnering with these school districts in program implementation.

The Ecology Center has been advocating for over two years to get these electric buses on the road. “We are proud to have been a supporter of the electric school bus pilot project from the beginning,” says Climate and Energy Director Charles Griffith. To raise public awareness of electric bus benefits, we worked with our partners at the Environmental Law and Policy Center to coordinate an electric school bus tour across 4 states in 2017 as part of our Charge Up Midwest coalition. We were also busy behind the scenes helping parent advocates, school district officials, and utility representatives detail a plan and get the wheels in motion.

Electric school buses make a big difference for our children’s futures, in multiple ways.

Because their bodies are still developing, children are more vulnerable to harm from direct exposure to diesel exhaust and engine soot than adults, and the average child spends 40 minutes in a diesel bus each school day. The emissions pollution can exacerbate health problems such as asthma, interfere with lung development, damage eyes, and cause inflamed throats and coughing. A study conducted by the University of Michigan and the University of Washington estimates that electric bus fleets could create 14 million fewer school absences nationwide each year. 

Furthermore, cost savings on electric buses can help school districts put more dollars directly into classrooms, and not only by saving on diesel gasoline and bus maintenance costs. Since school buses spend much of each day parked, bus batteries may contribute to meeting schools’ broader energy needs in the future. The pilot buses will serve as mobile laboratories for vehicle-to-grid research on two-way battery flow and battery storage technologies.

The Jouley, for example, “offers a 60 kW bi-directional charging capability with telematics, enabling the bus to interface with the power grid,” says Lynn Felcyn, electrification program manager, DTE Energy. “When these school buses are idle, they are essentially battery farms. The energy stored in a fleet of buses could one day provide demand management solutions during peak load events, or even during local emergencies as communities often use schools as shelter.”

And, of course, there’s the climate impact. Right now, youth around the world are marching for their future on a livable planet. Lowering transportation’s massive carbon footprint is essential to mitigating our climate crisis, and we need to act sooner rather than later as scientists continue to discover the full extent of ongoing damage and how little time we have to prevent the worst.

With such high stakes, Michigan can’t stop here. These first pilot programs are an exciting start, but for now, they’re tiny given the number of school buses that are out there: the largest, in Ann Arbor, adds four electric buses to a fleet serving thirty-one schools. We need to be able to electrify all school buses to extend the benefits to every schoolchild across the state. 

Other regions are making bold commitments to electric school buses based on the evidence for climate, health, and cost benefits. Dominion Energy, headquartered in Virginia, plans to assist school districts in adding 1,000 school buses within its eight-state service area, and the 

California Energy Commission announced a new $70 million award for electric school buses in July.

Based on the success of its electric school bus grant agreement, the Ecology Center hopes that EGLE will emphasize vehicle electrification in its future Volkswagen grant opportunities, including funding for cleaner transit buses, delivery trucks, and other heavy-duty vehicles and equipment currently powered by older diesel engines. “These grants are critical for helping spur the development of these new technologies,” says Charles, “by providing real-world experience for fleet operators and helping to drive costs down, enhancing affordability for school districts in the future.”

The September 12th kickoff event included a demonstration bus ride and remarks from Governor Whitmer, Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) Director Liesl Clark, and others.  Marios Demetriou, assistant superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, said at the Lansing kickoff event, “This is a progressive step forward for our schools and aligns nicely with our existing sustainability goals in the Ann Arbor community.” Along with other school district officials, he also celebrated opportunities for hands-on STEM education the buses will create when they hit the road next year.

Published on September 27, 2019