• Ideas

The Ubiquitous Yellow School Bus Can Be Turned Into a Force for Climate Change Good

4 minute read
Doerr is an engineer, venture capitalist, the chairman of Kleiner Perkins, and the author of the new book Speed and Scale: An Action Plan for Solving Our Climate Crisis Now as well as the number one New York Times best-seller Measure What Matters.

Transportation accounts for at least 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly eight billion tons of carbon per year. With Tesla rising, General Motors pledging to retire gasoline-powered lines by 2035, and other major car makers ready to follow suit, the electric vehicle era will soon be upon us. One EV segment is especially ready for electrification: the humble school bus. Where passenger cars have yet to reach price and performance parity with combustion engines, and long-haul trucks are waiting on more powerful batteries, forward-thinking school districts are already shifting to electric buses. About 40,000 new school buses are purchased each year. If districts bought only electric ones from this point forward, the nation’s entire fleet could be converted within a decade or so. All-electric school buses would cut U.S. carbon emissions by more than 5 million tons, the equivalent of removing a million cars from the road. It would be a tangible boost for our planet, our neighborhoods, and our children.

This is more than a niche market. In the U.S. alone, close to half a million school buses carry 26 million children more than 4 billion miles each year. Since school buses are used for relatively short distances and only a handful of hours during the day, the main barriers to electrification—limited range and charging infrastructure—are neutralized. In short, school buses are tailor made for electrification. And while electric buses have significantly higher sticker prices than the diesel-run variety, they save up to 80% on fuel, maintenance, and repairs. In terms of total cost of ownership, over a typical vehicle’s 12-year lifespan, school districts can actually come out ahead. The incentive will only grow with continued innovations in battery technology.

Besides cutting greenhouse gas emissions and offering stable, long-term economies, electric school buses help eliminate hazardous pollution and smog. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, diesel fumes are “carcinogenic to humans.” They’ve been linked to asthma, chronic respiratory disease, and premature death. As the Environmental Protection Agency has noted, particulate pollution is most dangerous to children, “who have a faster breathing rate than adults and whose lungs are not yet fully developed.” Diesel exhaust is a significant source of student illness and absenteeism. It poisons bus drivers and maintenance workers too. As the buses idle in traffic, they despoil our residential neighborhoods with noise and toxic soot. It is past time to bid them goodbye.

At present, barely 1% of U.S. school buses are electric. But the future is now in Montgomery County, Maryland, a Washington, DC, suburb with more than one million residents. The local school district has contracted to replace 25 old diesel buses with electric models this year and three hundred more within three years, the biggest single deployment in North America to date. By 2035, the county plans to convert its entire fleet—more than 1,400 vehicles—to EVs. To finesse the new buses’ higher sticker price and keep the contract budget-neutral, the district signed a comprehensive lease with Highland Electric Transportation, a Massachusetts start-up. For a fixed fee, Highland provides the e-buses, five charging depots, and the electricity. The ultimate goal is to power the system with 100% renewable energy, the zero-emissions holy grail.

On a national level, the e-bus movement is a grassroots coalition of policymakers, school officials, parents, and students. In Phoenix, the cross country team at South Mountain High School partnered with their coach and the advocacy organization Chispa to drive the district’s first purchase of an electric bus. In Miami, after 12-year-old Holly Thorpe persisted in pushing the county’s school board, it recently passed a district plan to replace 50 diesel buses with electrified ones. Momentum is building. President Biden’s infrastructure package includes $2.5 billion for electric school buses. The Bezos Earth Fund has chipped in with a grant for $37.5 million.

Making all new school buses electric is a practical goal with long-term climate benefits and an immediate payoff for our children’s well-being. And while we’re at it, why not electrify the nation’s 65,000 municipal transit buses, as well?

This essay is part of a series on concrete goals the world should aim for in 2022 in order to put us on track to avert climate change-related disaster. Read the rest here

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.