The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) designated a $5 billion budget for the EPA to disperse as part of the Clean School Bus Program–$2.5 billion for electric and $2.5 for any clean school bus – electric or an approved fossil-fuel burning option. This program represents an unprecedented federal investment in our nation’s yellow bus fleet and children’s health. Already, many schools are eager to electrify.
The EPA’s opening of the Clean School Bus program’s first round of applications for $500 million in rebates received praise from environmental and public health advocates. However, there may be lingering apprehension toward electric school buses (ESBs) among parents and school leaders. I’m concerned that this confusion may cause them to waste time and money by applying for propane or natural gas, favoring the familiarity of fossil fuels.
The argument for propane and natural gas is that they are better compared to 100% diesel engines. However, they trade dangerous methane and carbon dioxide emissions for harmful carbon monoxide and non-methane hydrocarbons. For decades, the norm was always to choose the “least bad” option.
Enter electric school buses. Electric school buses emit zero tailpipe emissions. That means cleaner air both onboard the bus where children and drivers spend time every day and in neighborhoods where buses drive on their way to and from school.
The old conversations about fuel efficiency and clean fuels are over. It’s like arguing over which Walkman design is best. Schools no longer need to brush up on their chemistry to pick the least harmful contamination for their children to inhale every day. Instead, they can just choose the best technology available: zero-emission, electric school buses.
The primary users, students, and drivers spot the difference immediately. Fairfax County Public Schools made a fun video pitting diesel against electric buses. In the video, they interviewed bus drivers and students about their new electric school buses. The excitement from the drivers is telling: “This is the Cadillac of Cadillacs,” said bus driver Sissie Scalia. Danielle McNamara made an interesting point, saying: “it’s quieter so I can hear the students and engage them in conversation.” Another driver concluded that EV buses are safer because they have no exhaust or diesel fuel smell.
Propane and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses sit between diesel and electric. They are quieter than diesel but not as whisper-silent as electric. They emit less nitrogen than diesel but still spew plenty of other toxins near children. Electric is hands down superior to these propane or natural gas.
The EPA recognizes this and structured its rebate lottery to favor zero-emission electric school buses. Suppose you’re a school district that just wants to replace your diesel buses as quickly as possible, and you don’t care about propane compared to electric (even though electric is the best). In that case, you’re still more likely to win the lottery if you choose to apply for zero-emission school buses.
There are other considerations between electric and fossil fuel-powered buses: cost, infrastructure, labor, logistics, and broader climate implications. But in the end, choosing to invest in zero-tailpipe emission buses reflects priorities. It says that a school district values health and safety. When it comes to our children, we will not settle for anything less than the best.
Here are a few links for school district leaders to learn more about the Clean School Bus Program.
This blog was written by transportation advocate Sam Little.
Photo by Denisse Leon on Unsplash
Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.