Article | October 17, 2022
Why We Need to Transition to Electric School Buses

Students deserve a clean, healthy ride to school – and the transition must start with those most impacted.

An elementary age girl with Down Syndrome gives a fist bump to a female school bus driver. The girl and other students are boarding the school bus.

In a typical school year, more than 20 million students ride the bus to school each day, taking more than seven billion combined trips. But right now, most of those buses are running on polluting diesel fuel, and kids from underserved communities are bearing a disproportionate burden of the related emissions. 

Today, over 90% of the school buses on the road are powered by diesel. That's a problem.

Source: Atlas EV Hub

The diesel school bus fleet poses real problems: 

But there’s good news. 

Electric school buses have zero tailpipe emissions, reducing students’ exposure to the dangers of diesel exhaust pollution. They’re responsible for significantly lower levels of greenhouse gases than diesel-powered school buses and save school districts thousands of dollars a year on fuel and maintenance costs, after the initial purchase cost. 

And best of all, they’re ready today: electric school buses are successfully operating in every part of the country and all types of climates throughout the U.S., including urban, rural and suburban communities  – and with record federal and state funding, more electric school buses are on the way. 

A bar chart showing the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of diesel, propane and electric school buses. Electric school buses have, on average, half the greenhouse gas emissions of other bus types.
Source: AFLEET Tool 2020, accessed August 16, 2022. Analysis conducted for each grid region and the U.S. average with default school bus parameters; “Wells-to-Wheels Petroleum Use, GHGs, and Air Pollutants” option selected. CO2 equivalent emissions standardize the global warming potential of different greenhouse gas emissions.

The challenge 

Diesel exhaust is dangerous for kids. For decades, studies have shown that diesel exhaust pollution is linked to conditions ranging from asthma to cancer. 

The facts are startling: 

  • Diesel exhaust pollution includes elevated levels of air pollutants including nitrogen oxides, which contribute to respiratory and heart disease.  
  • Diesel exhaust pollution is so dangerous, the World Health Organization has labeled it a known carcinogen. 
  • There is increasing evidence that children are particularly susceptible to the negative health impacts of diesel exhaust.  
  • All told, one study found that the average impact of higher ambient air pollution levels on lung function was similar to that of exposure to maternal smoking.  

As diesel-burning school buses drive their routes, these toxic air pollutants remain in the cabin of the vehicle – exposing children to harmful pollutants for extended periods of time. 

In addition, as global emissions reach dangerous levels, the nation’s approximately half-million school buses continue to pump more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – contributing to the dangers of climate change and threatening to leave current and future generations with a less safe and less habitable world. 

Every student deserves a clean, healthy ride to and from school. That’s why it’s time for a rapid, equitable transition to electric school buses nationwide. 

There is increasing evidence that children are particularly susceptible to the negative health impacts of diesel exhaust. 

Source: NIH

The need for an equitable transition 

Diesel exhaust pollution endangers us all, but the threat isn’t felt equally. 

Decades of racist, discriminatory policies have left both communities of color and low-income communities disproportionately impacted by toxic air pollution. And when it comes to school transportation and on-road pollution, these disturbing trends persist: 

  • Communities of color face on-road fine particulate matter pollution that is 61% to 75% higher than for white residents.  
  • 60% of low-income students ride the bus to school, compared to 45% of non-low-income students, meaning they face more direct exposure to diesel exhaust pollution from these buses 
  • Students from Black households are also more likely to ride the bus to school than students from households of other races

To contribute to addressing these historic and ongoing wrongs, the transition away from diesel school buses to electric school buses must be equitable. That means ensuring that the communities most impacted by diesel exhaust pollution have access to the benefits of electric school buses first – and that communities affected by this transition are engaged throughout the process. 

As the only type of school bus not powered by a fossil fuel-burning engine, electric school buses have zero tailpipe emissions of any pollutant.

Source: AFLEET Tool 2020*

The electric school bus opportunity 

Electric school buses represent a real opportunity to bring health, climate, air quality and cost savings benefits to every student and every community in America, starting with those most impacted by the dangers of diesel exhaust pollution. 

With an equitable transition to electric school buses, communities can see the benefits of zero-tailpipe-emissions electric school buses in real-time: 

  • Air quality:* As the only type of school bus not powered by a fossil fuel-burning engine, electric school buses have zero tailpipe emissions of any pollutant. 
  • Health: Electric school buses reduce students’ exposure to harmful health impacts of pollutants found in diesel exhaust pollution – including increased risk for cancer, asthma and heart disease. 
  • Climate: Electric school buses account for less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of diesel- or propane-burning buses, and they’re the only type of school bus for which emissions will decrease as grids transition to renewable energy sources. In fact, electrifying the full U.S. school bus fleet by 2030 would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 million metric tons per year, the equivalent of taking 2 million cars off the roads.**
  • Equity: by prioritizing communities that bear the disproportionate burden of diesel exhaust and on-road air pollution, the transition to electric school buses can contribute to correcting historically racist policies. Proactively considering the ripple effects of new technologies can make the school transportation, manufacturing and energy industries more equitable.  
  • Student achievement: reducing students’ exposure to air pollution from diesel school buses can have positive and significant effects on student test scores – in some cases, on par with increased teacher experience levels. 
  • Cost savings: after the upfront price, electric school buses can save districts an estimated $4,000 to $11,000 per school bus every year on operational expenditures, depending on circumstances, compared to their diesel counterparts. 
  • Jobs: an equitable transition to electric school can boost local economies and create thousands of meaningful, well-paying jobs in the U.S. 
  • Grid resiliency: in some circumstances, electric school buses offer the ability to implement new vehicle-to-grid (V2G) and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technologies that support resilient, reliable electric grids that can also benefit  school districts. 

With historic levels of funding and financing now available for electric school buses – including the EPA’s groundbreaking $5 billion Clean School Bus Program as well as funding from states and utilities – communities across the country are already seeing the tangible benefits of electric school buses. 

It’s clear: the electric school bus moment is here! 

Learn more 

Ready to find out more about the electric school bus moment and how you can be part of the equitable transition to electric school buses? 

*Source: AFLEET Tool 2020, accessed on April 26, 2022, utilizing the average U.S. electricity mix for ESBs and North American natural gas for CNG. Results presented for both the "Low NOx Option" and "Low NOx Option Not Selected" scenarios. "Wells-to-Wheels Petroleum Use and GHGs & Vehicle Operation Air Pollutants" option selected. Based on the assumption that a school bus drives 15,000 miles per year.

**Calculation using AFLEET (2020) and includes fuel lifecycle and vehicle operations. Uses the NREL Electrification Futures Study low cost renewables 2030 national average values, and assumes annual bus mileage of 14,084 miles, the same distribution of bus sizes found in the 2022 fleet orders, and no changes from current fuel efficiencies of either fuel type.