February 26, 2024

Every day, more than 20 million children ride to school on the approximately 450,000 buses that run through cities and towns across the country. More than 90 percent of those vehicles run on diesel fuel, which release harmful pollution such as fine particles, ozone-forming substances such as nitrogen oxide, and cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene. They also spew out a whole lot of greenhouse gases.

The Biden administration wants to do something about it. On Monday, it announced the latest tranche of funding to green America’s yellow buses. Awarded the Environmental Protection Agency nearly $1 billion in grants to 280 school districts to help them go electric.

The awards mark the third round of clean school bus funding released under the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Act. The money will buy more than 2,700 vehicles to transport 7 million students in 37 states. Notably, 86 percent of the cash will go to low-income, rural or tribal communities. School officials and public health advocates say it’s an important step toward reducing the impact of diesel pollution — a burden disproportionately felt by children of color and those in low-income areas.

“Clean air is not just an environmental issue. This is a matter of public health and educational equity,” Devon Horton, superintendent of the DeKalb County School District in Georgia, told a cheering crowd Monday at Stone Mountain Middle School.

Diesel pollution digs into the lungs, causing inflammation, asthma and a host of other respiratory diseases. Children are especially affected because their respiratory systems are still developing, said Anne Kelsey Lamb, director of the regional asthma management and prevention program at the Public Health Institute. Children also have faster breathing rates than adults, Lam added, meaning they inhale even more toxic fumes.

Researchers have long documented the effects of diesel exhaust from school buses. More than 20 years ago, a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the University of California, Berkeley found that the level of exhaust in the vehicles had reached. 23 to 46 times the amount that the Environmental Protection Agency has said poses a significant cancer risk. Another study, by researchers at the University of Connecticut, found a level of fine particles in school buses five to 15 times higher than those found outside. Such risks are compounded by the amount of time students spend on buses: a 30-minute ride to and from school each day amounts to 180 hours each year.

The effects on children of color and low-income students are particularly large. Sixty percent of low-income students ride the bus to school, compared to 45 percent of students from higher-income households. Prices of asthma, which is aggravated by diesel pollution, are also considerably whore among people of color.

Such exposure exacerbates the pollution burden that society has long placed on frontline communities. As a result of racist housing, investment, and energy affirmative practices, people of color live disproportionately near major sources of pollution such as highways, bus depots, power plants, and refineries. A University of Washington study found that regardless of income, people of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution almost all emission sources. Researchers at Harvard University reported that people of color and low-income populations are also disproportionately exposed to fine particles.

“Air pollution has a cumulative effect, where the more sources of air pollution children are exposed to, the greater the health impacts are going to be,” Lamb said.

Besides producing no exhaust emissions, electric buses are more efficient and has fewer moving parts, which can save school districts money on maintenance costs. But they cost three to four times more than diesels, with an average price of $350,000 to $450,000. While 1,285 school buses across the country are now electric – with many more on the way due to recent ones federal and state efforts — Zero-emission models remain out of reach for many districts.

In Nevada, this week’s funding is helping school districts make the switch. The state received nearly $8 million to purchase 25 electric buses in a partnership with the Nevada Clean Energy Fund, a nonprofit that applied for the EPA grant on behalf of five school districts.

Kirsten Stasio, the nonprofit’s CEO, said the money will not only allow students to commute without diesel emissions, but “the people who live along the bus routes will also experience reduced exposure to harmful air pollution.”

Greg Zegas, director of investments at the fund, told Grist that with the new federal grant, local utility incentives and support from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, schools can see the upfront cost of electric buses covered.

“We’re able to stack different pieces of funding together that allow the school districts to get the buses at no cost to them,” Zegas said. “When the school districts hear that, they’re definitely interested.” The group also helps schools access federal clean vehicle tax credits available under the Inflation Reduction Act.

As an added bonus, electric school buses can also help improve the reliability of the power grid. Nevada Clean Energy Fund is partnering with schools and utility NV Energy to join a bus-to-grid trial. Under the program, the utility will pay and install bus charging infrastructure which allows school buses to send electricity to the grid when not in use.

“It’s a really unique statewide approach to mesh all these different funding sources together,” Zegas said. The group is currently reaching out to schools to start ordering buses, and plans to have the vehicles on the road within three years as required by the grant.

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