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Science Fairs, School Buses, Brains and the Future

Published on 3/26/2022
Who says a science fair project can’t change the world? When middle-schooler Holly Thorpe tested carbon dioxide fumes in Miami-Dade school buses, she found the rates were ten times higher than the EPA recommends, far higher than OSHA allows for work sites. Air pollution reduces test scores, slows cognition, creates nausea and headaches, as well as increases cancer and asthma. The evidence makes it hard for school districts to look away. In February 2021, the Miami-Dade school district became one of many around the nation committing to zero-emissions bus fleets. 

School districts in New York, Georgia, Maryland, and Indiana are replacing diesel school buses with electric ones. Even with cleaner-burning fuel technology, electric buses are the only zero-emission option. Everyone’s health improves when communities reduce pollution, but adults often accept certain risks that we don’t make for our children. For small school districts like Crawfordsville, North Montgomery, and Southmont, those tradeoffs begin with the words “fiscal responsibility.” 

Transitioning to a new technology includes set-up costs that loom large, which is why John Smilie and Helen Hudson, members of the League of Women Voters, joined with Dr. Rex Ryker and Betsy Hamm of Crawfordsville Community Schools (CCSC) and a sales representative to explore options. The goal is to join a growing number of Hoosier school districts including Bartholomew Consolidated, Monroe County, Munster, Paramount Cottage Home, Delphi Community Schools, and Carmel Clay Schools have started by replacing one or two retiring buses with electric buses each year. The passage of the 2022 Infrastructure Investment Act freed up $500 million dollars a year for the next five years to help pay for electric buses. These federal funds will be distributed via grants and rebates. Additionally, the Volkswagon Environmental Mitigation funds have helped other districts with the initial sticker shock- an electric bus costs about four hundred thousand dollars, compared to a diesel counterpart, which rings up at about one hundred thousand. 

Beyond the initial cost are fuel and maintenance costs, the big selling point of electric vehicles. Their engines are seventy-five percent efficient, compared to twenty-five percent efficiency for fuel-burning engines. Presently, North Montgomery’s Clayton Randolph said that each bus costs five thousand dollars a year to maintain and fuel, or just under a quarter of a million dollars annually for the fleet. CCSC spends closer to one hundred seventy thousand a year. Powering an electric bus saves districts two-thirds of the cost of fuel. They are cheaper to maintain as well because they have regenerative braking and more efficient drivetrain systems. 

Presently, the average life of a bus is five to ten years, depending on how districts manage their fleet. CCSC has over twenty buses in its fleet. North Montgomery (NMSC) has forty-nine. (Note: Southmont did not reply to an invitation to be interviewed.) Annually North Montgomery replaces four to five buses a year, CCSC replaces one or two. Because its fleet is smaller. To begin replacing older buses with electric technology, corporations need to locate grant funds, which Drive Clean Indiana helps districts do. 

As the US transitions to electric vehicles, one initial barrier is the cost of the charging infrastructure. Corporations would want to plan for charging that handles up to four buses. The initial cost is eighty thousand dollars to charge four buses over three to six hours. This might work well for CCSC but not as much for North Montgomery. The city derives a large portion of its power from solar, and the school district would become one of its best customers.  John Smilie cited a Massachusetts district that worked out a financial deal with the electricity provider to use the batteries on parked buses to balance the power grid. The company could store excess power on the bus batteries, which is very helpful during the summer months when the solar demands shift and most buses are parked.

North Montgomery would need to restructure how it manages its fleet. Presently drivers take their buses home, presenting a problem with charging. Randolph also noted that a number of their buses transport students to extra-curriculars, so charging time would become a juggling act. While they keep their options open they need to hear from constituents to know that the first priority is students’ health and cognitive ability.

In part, parents, teachers, and community members should let their districts know why the transition should begin as soon as possible. John Smilie noted that “There are some things that more you learn about them, it’s hard to say if its good or bad. Air pollution is not one of those things. Every year there is more information about what it does to the human body. Particulate matter 2.5 (that the size of the particles) gets into the body and increases heart disease, cancer, asthma, vision loss, dementia, and cognitive performance. Increasingly there is evidence it contributes to depression. In the short and long term, being exposed to air pollution reduces our ability to think.”

That’s the opposite of what we send our kids to school to do, and we don’t want to be counterproductive while training up kids for the future.