For many students this fall, the daily ritual of boarding a school bus is about to become a safer, cleaner, more fiscally and environmentally responsible experience. Driven primarily by long-term cost savings and a reduced carbon footprint, school districts from Minnesota to California have begun to incorporate electric school buses into their fleets.
Electric buses are a breath of fresh air for students, too: most kids will tell you that school buses smell bad—and not just because some middle schoolers may have gym as their last class of the day. Indeed, a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley showed that the air inside traditional diesel buses can reach hazardous levels:
Levels of diesel exhaust inside the school buses were up to four times higher than those found in passenger cars just ahead of them, and more than eight times what you'd find in the average sample of California air.
Scariest of all: the authors estimated that 23 to 46 of every one million children may eventually develop cancer from the diesel exhaust they inhale just while traveling to and from school.
All-electric vehicles, on the other hand, don’t create any exhaust whatsoever, because they don’t have engines or use gasoline. Along with cost savings from not purchasing gasoline, they don’t need oil changes or other combustion engine-associated maintenance required by conventional buses.
For maximum sustainability impact, a school can charge its buses’ batteries with an onsite solar panel system. For those schools who aren’t equipped to generate their own electricity, they will need to draw power from the electrical grid, but can keep charging costs down by plugging in their vehicles when electricity prices are lowest (usually at night).
These clean, green, kid-moving machines can be double or triple the cost of their diesel counterparts, with an average price tag of $225,000. However, like many sustainable technologies, the payoff is long-term and multifaceted: not only are electric buses less expensive to fuel and maintain, they will also improve the air quality of their young passengers and their communities.
An increasing number of school districts can access local funding sources to help finance their investment in electric buses, including electric utilities, who would benefit from the school’s increased electricity demand. Additional incentives and subsidies are increasingly offered by state and local governments who plan to meet their carbon emissions reduction goals with electric vehicles.
There are several pilot projects underway this fall. California’s carbon cap-and-trade funds provided 29 zero-emissions electric buses for three school districts in the Sacramento region. Many of the buses are intentionally assigned to routes through disadvantaged communities, which often have lower air quality.
Like many sustainable initiatives and industry-disrupting innovations, most electric school buses on the market today are manufactured by startups. Major bus manufacturers are already responding to the demand for electric school buses; once this technology is mainstream, it won’t be long before students around the country have a safer, cleaner, ride to and from school every day. Now that’s a breath of fresh air.