Congress Can Bring More Electric School Buses to Iowa
by Guest Blogger on Wednesday, July 21, 2021
Iowa can and should become an example for other rural states in how to transition completely to electric school buses. Consider the numbers: Approximately 480,000 school buses transport over 25 million children to schools across the US. In Iowa alone, 250,000 children ride school buses twice a day, every school day, on a total of about 3,000 buses (source: School Transportation Department, Iowa Department of Education). Most of these buses run on dirty diesel engines, spewing pollution that causes cancer, triggers asthma attacks, and makes climate change worse. More than half of all American children (approximately 55%) use school buses.
My daughters, now grown, were among them. On most school days for a total of 12 years each, my girls rode the school bus 35 minutes into town from our rural home in Central Iowa, and 35 minutes back. That means they each spent nearly 2,380 hours sitting in a diesel school bus before they left for college.
Children who ride diesel school buses are exposed to carcinogenic, asthma-causing pollution. And the air quality inside a school bus can be several times worse than outside the bus. Children are more susceptible to health harms from this pollution, given their still-developing respiratory systems and faster breathing rates.
I remember all too well how often Marta, my middle daughter, got off the school bus, listless and pale, collapsed on her bed or on the sofa, and said the smell inside the bus made her sick to her stomach. I always felt sorry for Marta, who is the most sensitive to odors among us, and wished the bus wouldn’t smell so. Now, 15 years later, through my work as State Organizer for Moms Clean Air Force in Iowa, I have learned that Marta, Maya, and Emma weren’t just enduring bad diesel smells. My children’s lungs and overall health were actually being affected – over the course of 12 years - both inside the school bus they rode, and outside, as they waited in line breathing in diesel emissions from idling buses during the colder months of the year.
Transitioning school buses to 100% electric power will help clean up the air we all breathe. Although the initial investment into electric school buses is higher than for diesel buses, they are much less costly to operate and maintain. Electric buses have fewer moving parts that can break down, so they cost far less to keep up and running. Each electric bus can save almost $2,000 a year in fuel and $4,400 a year in reduced maintenance costs.
Iowa, unfortunately, exhausted its portion of the Volkswagen Settlement Environmental Mitigation Trust (Funding Cycle 1) entirely on diesel and propane school buses – a golden opportunity missed. There are, however, other resources to help with the acquisition of electric school bus fleets. Around the country, utilities can step in to support this process by building charging infrastructure and providing affordable rates for electric bus charging. When not in motion, the batteries of electric school buses can serve as a source of power for local grids. Replacing all school buses in the U.S. with zero-emission versions could avoid, on average, 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. Some school districts are even talking about financing the cost of the buses in part with the sale of carbon credits.
At Moms Clean Air Force, we have publicly supported several bills introduced in this Congress that include funding for electric school buses. We are especially excited about the inclusion of electrification of school buses in the current infrastructure discussions happening in Washington. We believe it is crucial that we transition away from diesel school buses to ensure our children’s health and wellbeing, and to reduce carbon emissions.
I can still see Marta’s pale face when she felt sick after the school bus ride, and my heart churns as I wish I could turn back the clock. Let’s get it right for the next generation of school children.
Karin Stein is the field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force in Iowa and co-leads the organization’s Ecomadres program, which educates and empowers Latino parents to advocate for climate action on behalf of their children. A Kellogg resident, Karin is also a mother to three grown daughters and an accomplished Latin musician who takes inspiration from her roots in Colombia and Costa Rica.
Moms Clean Air Force is a national organization of nearly 1.5 million members whose mission is to protect children from air pollution and climate change. You may download our fact sheet on electric school buses here.