For many children, part of the daily commute to school includes standing along the curb of a bus stop, inhaling exhaust emitting from an idle bus. This diesel exhaust is not only designated as a carcinogen to humans, with children being especially susceptible with their respiratory systems still developing, but along with other vehicles in the transportation industry is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota.
But now the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hopes to reduce the number of diesel buses servicing schools with a pilot project that has awarded five bus vendors and school districts $2.1 million in grants to buy eight electric buses.
The districts getting electric buses subsidized by the pilot program are Faribault Public Schools, St. Paul Public Schools, Columbia Heights Public Schools, Morris Area School District, Fergus Falls Public Schools and Osseo Area Schools. The pilot funds up to $275,000 or 75 percent of each electric bus, with districts and/or vendors responsible for the remaining cost. (Most school districts outsource transportation to outside bus companies.)
The subsidy is significant with the high prices of electric buses. One electric bus can cost in the upper $300,000 range in comparison to diesel busses, which are usually priced around $80,000. Prior to MPCA’s pilot project, only one school district in the state — Lakeville area schools — had an electric bus.
The pilot is being funded as a part of the 10-year Volkswagen emissions settlement, from which Minnesota received $47 million.
Addressing districts’ concerns
MPCA had previously attempted a similar pilot project in 2018 but received very few applicants.
To garner more interest from the districts, MPCA invited five electric bus manufacturers together to meetings where the manufacturers talked to school districts and bus management companies about their vehicles.
“We really had to craft a pilot that would get people to apply for these grants, and we didn’t know what it was that was keeping them from applying,” said Rebecca Place, the electric vehicle program administrator at MPCA. “Are they scared of Minnesota winters? Are they intimidated by the cost of the electric bus?”
Districts were given the freedom to select their own manufacturer, with Osseo deciding on a Canadian company for a tried and true winter-friendly electric bus.
“Because they’re tested in Canada, we knew that they would be a good match for our winter driving conditions,” said Nick Martini, the transportation coordinator for Osseo Area Schools. “They have all fiberglass composite body panels and so with the salt in the roadways, these vehicles aren’t going to rust and same with the step wells where the kids walk up into the bus.”
Electric buses have an approximate 100 mile range when fully charged and the lag between morning and afternoon bus routes gives vendors the time needed to fully recharge. North Star, Osseo’s bus provider, installed five bus charging stations in anticipation of growing their electric fleet. In Osseo, two buses are currently running routes, with a third expected to join soon.
Health and climate impacts
The MPCA’s Place said one goal of the project is to demonstrate how the electric buses work in all corners of the state, with applicants broken into four geographic zones.
But that’s not the only consideration: applicants are also ranked according to each district’s air pollution levels, the number of emergency room visits in the area for asthma-related or cardiovascular-related issues and assessing the diesel bus which will be replaced — a requirement of the project is that the electric bus replace a diesel bus built before 2009.
Martini said the demographics of the east side of his district was one of the primary reasons Osseo was chosen out of 47 applicants.
“We know historically that areas of lower income and areas of higher population density are more subject to vehicle emissions because they have more city busses running in their area, they have more personal vehicles because of the population density,” Martini said. “Our demographic makeup is about 50 to 54 percent students of color, and we have a higher concentration of students of color on the east side of our district.”
Place said the project is designed to help protect vulnerable populations from fine particles from buses, such as nitrous oxide.
“The electric buses are going to reduce pollution in the air in those areas,” Place said. “So we’re hitting right at the point where we should buy by replacing these school busses so the children aren’t impacted by the diesel emissions.”
The program could also help Minnesota achieve goals set in the Next Generation Energy Act, which calls for the state to halve 2008 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (reducing carbon emissions is also a requirement for programs funded by the VW settlement). According to MPCA data, replacing one diesel school bus with an electric bus will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29 tons over the 10-year lifetime of the vehicle — the equivalent of the emission of six passenger cars over the same time period. And while MPCA does not have data on the total emissions from school buses in the state, the combined emissions from the transportation industry as a whole in 2018 was 40 million tons.
For now, Place said MPCA will continue to collect data from the districts on factors such cost effectiveness, amount of energy consumed and regenerated, before starting another round of grants for electric school buses.
“There’s just enormous potential with electric school busses,” Place said. “If we find out that they’re a great fit and they work, I would hope to see a lot of investment in electric school busses in Minnesota in the future.”