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Time to switch to electric school buses to save the planet and money, group says

Students from A.I. duPont High School are dropped off in Hockessin, Del., on Feb. 15, 2017. A new report by environmentalists is calling for school districts to trade in diesel-burning school buses for electric models.  (Suchat Pederson/Wilmington News-Journal via AP)

A new report by a group of environmental organizations is calling for the nation’s school districts to trade in their diesel-burning yellow school buses for electric models as a way of keeping the air cleaner and ultimately saving money.

The environmentalists also suggest a way to pay for the switch, urging jurisdictions to use funds from the $14.7 billion U.S. settlement with Volkswagen over the automaker’s emissions scandal.  The report, released Thursday, coincided with news that VW’s former chief executive has been indicted on fraud charges.

States could help make the change by creating financial incentives for school districts and cities, using VW’s “Dieselgate” money to purchase buses, along with the charging and maintenance infrastructure that go with them.

Metro is dead — long live BRT! (Or so some say)

“We are advocating in the states that they should use 85% of the VW settlement money for the purchase of new all-electric buses and the remaining 15% for electric transportation infrastructure,” Jeff Robinson, U.S. PIRG’s transportation director, said in an email. “There are other federal programs that fund local and regional transit projects.”

But Fairfax County, which operates one of the largest school bus fleets in the nation, shows why the switch would be a good idea but hard to put into place, even with VW money.

The report by U.S. PIRG Education Fund and other organizations says that buses are better for the planet than cars because they can carry many more people per trip. But the buses that shuttle millions of people around cities every day or ferry children to school and back are still burning fossil fuels that dump climate-changing gases and soot into the atmosphere.

There are about 480,000 school buses in the United States, and about 95 percent of them run on diesel, the report says. That compares with 70,000 transit buses, of which about 70 percent run on diesel and 18 percent use natural gas. Only 0.2 percent of transit buses are entirely powered by electricity, the report says.

By switching from diesel to electric on school buses alone, the nation would reduce the emission of about 5.3 million tons of pollution — or about the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road. Not only would that be a benefit for the environment, but it would also reduce the exposure of children to diesel exhaust, the report says.

Although electric buses can be about twice as expensive as diesel models — $230,000 vs. $110,000, said Alana Miller, of Frontier Group, one of the report’s analysts — schools would ultimately save about $2,000 on fuel and $4,400 in maintenance every year, the report says.

And those savings would probably increase as the adoption of electric buses becomes more common, the report says. Pilot programs with electric buses are underway in California, Massachusetts and Minnesota, and there are more companies putting electric buses on the road, Miller said.

Francine Furby, director of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Office of Transportation Services, said the district would love to move to pollution-free electric vehicles.

But she also said that the district has looked into electric buses as far back as the early 1990s and as recently as last year, and so far the verdict has been that electric buses are not yet ready.

“We drove it around and it was something that they knew, the vendors themselves knew, that it still needed to have some additional work, as to speed and so on,” Furby said.

The sprawling Northern Virginia school district, whose fleet puts it in the top 10 in size among schools in the United States, operates a fleet of about 1,630 school buses, none of which operates on natural gas or electricity. Furby said the electric and alternative-fuel buses are still too expensive to invest in without grants or other aid, and the county applied for but was not successful in getting VW funds.

“I think probably in time, once we do more of the bus vendors producing this type of vehicle and it’s kind of tested through other school districts, it might be something we’ll entertain,” Furby said in an interview Thursday. “But right now, it’s just too new.”

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