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New infrastructure funding presents more opportunities coming for electric school buses

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IPR
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EGLE Director Liesl Clark at the steering wheel of an electric school bus at event in 2019. (Photo provided: Michigan Dept. of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy)

Efforts to add electric school buses to districts across the state are moving forward.

Clean energy officials met at Bay College in Escanaba yesterday to talk about funding and education opportunities for public schools.

Electric buses are a federal priority outlined in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill passed under the Biden administration late last year. The bill allocates $5 billion over the next five years to go toward an EPA effort to replace existing school buses with clean and zero-emission models.

Dozens of school districts had made requests by Thursday, one day ahead of the deadline to apply for the Clean School Bus Rebate Program. Priority candidates for the program include districts with the greatest need, are in rural or low-income areas, and tribal school systems.

Private schools are not eligible for funding.

EPA Mobile Source Program Manager Frank Acevedo said Michigan is among the top four states in terms of the number of applications received.

“School buses are the safest ways for kids to get to school,” Acevedo said. “We also want to make them the cleanest.”

ALREADY HERE

The event in Escanaba featured Acevedo, joined by officials from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and local districts.

Seventeen electric buses have already joined the fleets of seven districts around the state.

“In 2019, EGLE mobilized $4.2 million from a Volkswagen settlement for an electric school bus pilot,” said Irene Queen, EGLE environmental analyst. “This pilot included opportunities for STEM education in the area of electric vehicles that are used as ‘Rolling Laboratories.’”

Representatives from two of these districts praised the buses for their safety features, ability to cut costs and provide learning experiences for students.

Douglas Francis, who recently retired from Gaylord Community Schools, was one of the first to drive them. After driving one for about a year, he said he prefers electric buses in every way.

“They ride well. They drive nice. They're absolutely quiet. They’re wider than normal buses so that's been a plus for student management,” Francis said.

Plus, he said they handle well in Michigan winters.

An electric school bus starts at $375,000 for the unit on its own — compared to a diesel at about a third of the price. There are additional costs for charging stations and other infrastructure to keep the bus running properly.

“That’s a lot of money coming from these school districts,” said Katrina Morris, executive director of Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation. “But what a great opportunity for career technical education to get our kids involved in it. That way, it’s not just a bus, it’s a learning opportunity.”

HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS

Kenni Jean Schrader is the transportation director at Three Rivers Community Schools in southwest Michigan, another recipient of electric buses via the pilot program. She said the demand from students has been growing since her district started running the clean energy buses.

“High school students actually show up at board meetings - wanting to know why haven't we already taken advantage of this before,“ she said.

Schrader said children's exposure to harmful diesel exhaust fumes and particles drops to zero.

Diesel emissions from older buses also impact climate and contribute to long-term damage to the environment. According to EPA data, Michigan emits the 10th-most greenhouse gasses in the nation.

MORE MONEY?

MAPT, Morris’ organization, has been lobbying in Lansing for more funding from the state for electric bus programs.

“When we kicked this off four years ago, I was totally against electric buses,” Morris said. “After talking to a lot of the people in the industry going and actually driving one of these buses, it very quickly changed my mind.”

EGLE currently offers funding through the Michigan Clean Diesel Program - an annual grant program aimed at replacing heavy-duty vehicles with electric models, including buses.

“We're hopeful that the information (and resources) that's shared today are useful and inspirational to get people interested in bringing electric school buses to their own school district,” Morris said.

Visit websites for the EPA and EGLE to learn more about the funding opportunities.

Michael Livingston is a senior at Central Michigan University majoring in Journalism and International Relations. He grew up in Hartland, a small town in Livingston County. After graduation in 2022, he aspires to take his reporting abroad as a correspondent.