Colorado’s first two electric school buses are here and thirty more are on the way

Following a summer of record ozone pollution days in Colorado, school districts share the stories about how the first electric school buses found their way to the roads  in Boulder and Kremmling.  I joined experts from those districts as well as Mothers Out Front to highlight the health and climate impacts of diesel school buses, and how electric school buses are the path forward.

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Alexandra Simon
Advocate, CoPIRG
Alexandra Simon

Author: Alexandra Simon

Advocate, CoPIRG

(203) 536-1819

Started on staff: 2018
B.A., magna cum laude, University of Pennsylvania; MPA, Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy, New York University

Alex is an advocate on Colorado-based campaigns to promote a healthier, cleaner and safer world. She previously served as the Director of Strategic Planning for The Public Interest Network. Alex lives in Denver, where she enjoys hiking, skiing and seeing live music.

Enjoying time outside is a big reason many Coloradans choose to live in this amazing state, and we simply cannot afford another summer of air pollution like the one we just had.  

As the mother of a toddler, I’ve grown especially attentive to the ongoing “ozone alerts” or “sensitive air quality” days, advising us to stay indoors on yet another polluted day.  

Not only is the transportation sector the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions, but diesel exhaust emissions specifically have been linked to serious health risks, and are classified as a likely carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  

Children are exposed to dangerous levels of diesel pollution on a daily basis. Exhaust fumes inside school buses have been found to be up to four times higher than levels of pollution in cars driving in front of the buses.

 

 

Electric-powered school buses are a critical solution to this problem.  

Electric buses don’t emit harmful air pollution and produce much less carbon emissions (even when electricity is still generated mostly by fossil fuels).  They can save districts money over the long term through lower maintenance and fueling costs. 

Replacing all of America’s school buses with electric buses could avoid an average of 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year.

Leaders in school districts in Boulder and Kremmling knew they could do better for their students and their communities by getting an electric school bus.  Together with the Mothers Out Front, they joined me to talk about the first electric school buses on the road, why parents care, and what the future for electric school buses looks like for Colorado.  You can view that webinar here. 

Boulder: Driving towards a zero carbon future, one bus at a time

As the Safe Routes Coordinator for Boulder Valley School District, Landon Hilliard oversees a 500 square mile district encompassing 56 schools and 34,000 students and staff.  Their 255 buses travel more than 1.5 million miles each year. Now, one of these buses is electric.  

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Boulder Valley School District and school bus fleet - Landon Hilliard, Boulder Valley School District

 

Resulting from the Volkswagen emissions-cheating scandal, the Regional Air Quality Council provides grant money to school districts to cover the cost difference between an electric and traditional diesel bus.  This grant allowed Boulder to buy its first bus. 

Staff were thrilled when the first bus arrived this past March, and has been operational since April.  

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Arrival of the first electric school bus in Boulder - Landon Hilliard, Boulder Valley School District

 

As Landon describes, “The first thing you’ll notice about the electric bus, like most electric vehicles, is how quiet it is. It is a joy to drive…. it's easy to use, it's responsive, it's quick off the line.” 

The only drawback, Landon noted, is that it's so very quiet that the bus driver now can hear almost all the conversations, including those in the very back, that “possibly a bus driver would not want to be privy to.”  

With the latest round of Alt Fuels funding, Boulder received additional grant funding to purchase 5 more electric school buses.  Their ultimate goal, he noted, is to decarbonize the transportation sector. 

“There’s real call to action for us to electrify our fleets and try to reduce the footprint of the transportation sector that’s harming people,  harming the globe, and if you think about tailpipe emissions at a local level about the students riding the bus, there are fumes and toxins that aren’t the best for human health,” concluded Landon, in a call to action for more electric buses nationwide.  

 

Kremmling: Public funding brings a community together around their first electric school bus

Bethany Aurin, Transportation Director for the West Grand Valley School District, joined us to share how Kremmling came to get their first bus.  The subsidized funding through the RAQC was a primary driver in selling the local community; Bethany reported that the district received approximately $325,000 from the RACQ with additional support from Mountain Parks Electric, the local electric company. 

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Electric school bus funding opportunities - Landon Hilliard, Boulder Valley School District

 

The bus is providing benefits in both expected and unexpected ways.  “It’s a great conversation starter,” Bethany said, noting that she receives calls from other curious districts in Colorado and across the country.  It's being incorporated into the high school curriculum, and has also “been a great source of pride for our students and our community,” she reflected. 

“Kremmling is kind of a quirky little mountain town, and we only have 3 buses routes and 7 buses in our fleet, so we are already at the 15% mark for going electric, which is pretty amazing for little Kremmling.”

In addition to her role as Transportation Director, Bethany also drives the bus and  was able to comment on its “peppy” performance uphill and “toasty” temperatures inside during Kremmling’s cold winter months.  

She noted that as more schools adopt electric buses and the associated chargers, it will expand the territory they can cover with their bus. Currently, the bus runs about 85 miles per day.

Mothers Out Front: Electric school buses represent tangible actions against air pollution for parents

Representing the group Mothers Out Front, Miranda Meadow shared her personal experience growing up and now raising young children in Denver.  Noticing the changes in the air quality and ozone alerts in recent years, she’s facing the challenge of how to protect her children from things like dirty air.  

When talking about problems like air pollution and climate change, those problems can seem very big and overwhelming, especially as it relates to parenting.  

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Miranda speaking on CoPIRG school bus webinar - 9/30/21

 

By talking about electric school buses, Miranda noted that it helps gain traction and publicity for the tangible actions we are able to take in tackling these big problems:

“It's not just about electrifying our school buses, it's about creating a sense of progress and communicating that progress, and giving people who are currently advocates and currently activated to pay attention to this a sense of success, and alerting people who are potential advocates...a sense that we really can create change and that progress is generative, and when we come together we can solve problems.”

The future of electric school buses in Colorado 

With the most recent round of funding from the VW settlement wrapping up this past July, Colorado has now been awarded a total of 32 electric school buses, of which 3 are currently on the roads (the rest are waiting to be delivered).  Under the program, school districts can receive grant funding to cover the difference in cost between a diesel and electric school bus.  

The following slide shows which school districts have or will receive the next buses.

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Colorado school bus awards - Alex Simon, CoPIRG

 

At the federal level, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also known as the bipartisan infrastructure bill) has passed the Senate and is waiting to be voted on in the House. 

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Federal infrastructure bill details - Alex Simon, CoPIRG

 

The bill includes $2.5 billion in federal funding over five years for zero-emission electric school buses specifically, to be distributed as grants or rebates through a new EPA program.

This is the first large-scale federal funding program for electric school buses.  I hope the passage of this and future legislation will continue to fund Colorado’s transition to electric school buses, creating a safer and healthier environment for us all to enjoy.  

Alexandra Simon
Advocate, CoPIRG
Alexandra Simon

Author: Alexandra Simon

Advocate, CoPIRG

(203) 536-1819

Started on staff: 2018
B.A., magna cum laude, University of Pennsylvania; MPA, Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy, New York University

Alex is an advocate on Colorado-based campaigns to promote a healthier, cleaner and safer world. She previously served as the Director of Strategic Planning for The Public Interest Network. Alex lives in Denver, where she enjoys hiking, skiing and seeing live music.