Snohomish School District’s Clayton Lovell plugs in the district’s electric bus after morning routes on March 6, at the district bus depot in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Snohomish School District’s Clayton Lovell plugs in the district’s electric bus after morning routes on March 6, at the district bus depot in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: Money well spent on switch to electric school buses

With grants awarded to local school districts, a study puts a dollar figure on health, climate savings.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The wheels on the bus still go ‘round and ‘round, but for more school children in Snohomish County and the rest of Washington state, they are also much quieter and healthier for students and the rest of the community.

School districts in the county, like those across the state and country, are taking advantage of state and federal grants that have helped subsidize the costs of purchasing electric- or propane-powered school buses, relegating the old-school diesel-powered buses to the recycle yard.

A new study is now showing how that switch to electric buses will pencil out for more school districts, making the case to ramp up the transition away from diesel and toward cleaner transportation.

Several districts, including Snohomish and Everett, already are transporting students on electric and propane vehicles. The Everett School District, which contracts with Durham School Services, has put three electric buses on routes, courtesy of a state Department of Ecology grant, with plans to add six more over the next two school years. The Snohomish School District, also with an Ecology grant, purchased its first electric bus in 2022, and with a federal Environmental Protection Agency grant purchased 11 propane-fueled buses, according to recent reporting by The Herald’s Ta’Leah Van Sistine.

While still a fossil fuel, propane is seen as a healthier and more affordable alternative to diesel, releasing up to 96 percent lower emissions of toxic greenhouse gas emissions. In U.S. regions where fossil fuels are used more heavily to generate electricity than they are in the Northwest, propane produces 43 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than electric buses.

The latest round of federal grants, announced last month by the Biden administration, total nearly $1 billion in funding — part of a total of $5 billion over five years through Congress’ Bipartisan Infrastructure Law — that in this round allocated about $24.3 million for 16 districts in the state. Of that, $600,000 is going to the Northshore School District for three electric buses; $275,000 to the Snohomish School District for 11 propane-fueled buses; $200,000 to the Sultan School District for an electric bus; and $75,000 to the Oak Harbor School District for three propane buses.

The hurdle for many school districts has been the upfront costs in purchasing an electric bus, which, unsubsidized, can cost between $150,000 to $300,000 more than a conventional diesel-powered bus at $140,000. For electric buses, however, that up-front investment, along with delivering students to school and home again, is delivering greater value; in better health for students and neighborhood residents as well as climate-saving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

More recently, that value for better health and climate benefits — while understood in general terms for years — has been quantified.

A study by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, published in the journal PNAS, has found that replacing diesel school buses with electric school buses can yield up to $247,600 in health and climate benefits for each bus, including reduced rates of adult mortality and childhood asthma.

“Our data offer strong evidence that accelerating the ongoing transition to electric school buses will benefit individual, public and planetary health,” said Kari Nadeau, senior study author and chair of the school’s environmental health department, in a statement.

Overall, the study found an average of total health and climate benefits of $84,200 for each electric bus replacing a diesel bus, with about $43,800 in health savings from reduced air pollution, air-borne carcinogens and rates of asthma and other health impacts.

The most significant savings were seen in larger cities and metropolitan areas with larger populations exposed to higher concentrations of diesel exhaust fumes. The EPA’s grants have prioritized grants for low-income communities and communities of color that have experienced more exposure to the effects of air pollution.

“In a dense urban setting where old diesel buses still comprise most school bus fleets, the savings incurred from electrifying these buses outweigh the costs of replacement,” Nadeau said. “Not to mention how the tangible benefits of electric school buses can improve lives; especially for racial minorities and those living in low-income communities who are disproportionately impacted by the everyday health risks of air pollution.”

State law passed this session in Olympia will build on the transition already underway. While a provision that would have set a deadline of 2035 for school districts to fully transition to electric buses was not included in the bill’s final version, it does require state agencies to prioritize state grants for communities and populations most vulnerable to air pollution.

The law prioritizes grant funding to go to districts using the greatest number of older buses, built before 2007; districts with the greatest ill effects of air pollution; and districts that have yet to receive grants for electric buses.

An additional benefit of larger fleets of electric buses; those buses, when not on routes, such as during classes, at night and school breaks, could serve as additional electrical storage — batteries on wheels — that can soak up power when more electricity is being produced and release it onto the grid when demand is higher, smoothing out the hills and valleys of generation and use.

Beyond current funding, state and federal agencies and school districts, themselves, should look for further opportunities to continue the transition to electric buses, using propane as a bridge away from diesel and toward fully electric fleets. With each bus built, the costs to produce electric vehicles are lowered, adding even greater value to the health and climate benefits provided.

That those benefits can be more fully directed toward children — who will live longest with the consequences of a century of fossil-fueled energy consumption — is what they are owed.

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