Opinion | New electric school buses will benefit student health in Michigan

Liesl Clark

Liesl Clark is director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

With school back in session, many school buses are on the road again.

They’re often idling curbside at your neighborhood bus stop or lined up in front of schools dropping off or picking up students.

While I, like many parents, am happy to have our kids back in school for a year of learning, adventure and academics, I’m worried about the harmful elements they’re exposed to from bus exhaust.

That’s why I’m so excited about an agreement the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy recently signed that paves the way for seven Michigan school districts to buy a total of 17 electric buses that will replace dirtier diesel-powered models that are at least 10 years old.

Our bus replacement pilot program is a collaboration between EGLE’s Materials Management Division and the Michigan Association for Pupil Transportation, which convened stakeholders in support of cleaner air, alternative fuel options, and a safer environment for children. Money came from a $4.2 million grant through Michigan’s Fuel Transformation program, which leverages non-taxpayer money from the allocation to the state of Michigan from Volkswagen’s diesel testing settlement.

If you live in areas served by Ann Arbor, Roseville, Gaylord, Kalamazoo, Zeeland, Three Rivers, and Oxford schools you’ll soon see zero-emission buses by Lion Electric Co. and Thomas Built Buses / Proterra idling cleanly and quietly at the bus stop or outside schools. The buses will also reduce the amount of harmful pollutants from exhaust that enters buildings and classrooms, affecting students, teachers, and staff.

That will translate into a healthier, cleaner environment for students not just in those districts, but also for the communities they serve since exhaust from diesel-powered buses expose children, parents and those who live and work along bus routes to harmful exhaust fumes and particulates. Diesel exhaust contaminants include over 40 substances listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as either hazardous air pollutants or criteria pollutants, such as nitric oxides and nitrogen dioxide. Combustion of fossil fuels is also a major source of greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants, such as ozone.

Fewer diesel fumes from idling buses will have a lasting effect on a student’s ability to do better in school. Cleaner air can mean fewer health impacts from dirty air on children -- especially the nearly 9 percent of Michigan students 17 and younger who reported having asthma, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance. Fewer sick days means students won’t fall behind on their studies. 

One of this administration’s priorities is to give students the tools they need to succeed in school, and exposure to fewer pollutants is an important step in that process.

The buses won’t be just a benefit outside the classroom, they’ll also supplement STEM studies and offer opportunities for learning about the environment, new technology, climate change, and EVs.

The buses are just one example of a revolution in transportation that we here at EGLE are excited to be a part of.

Our Office of Climate and Energy is working closely with Michigan State University researchers to map out ideal locations and number of EV chargers along well-traveled Michigan highways in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The study will leverage nearly $10 million over the next three years to locate DC fast chargers as part of a public network, reducing “range anxiety” among drivers and making it easier to consider drive an electric as you shop for your next vehicle. 

Whether it’s electric cars or buses, we’re on the cusp of something big. Automakers are all in on electrics, chargers are being installed in public and private locations to make travel more convenient, and schools are doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint. 

So, look out for those electric buses that are hitting the streets near you. All 17 are expected to be on the road soon. This is a step in the right direction for our children, our schools, and our environment. It’s wonderful to see how everyone is working together and doing their part to make an impact in our state.

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Thu, 10/10/2019 - 8:50am

Electric buses are an innovative idea whose time will come.

In the meantime, instead of using actual science, you include multiple paragraphs invoking "better student outcomes", educational opportunities, etc. as a primary reason for these buses. I thought that was the responsibility of the State Department of Education, not EGLE.

Justin Bowen
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 1:51am

It's kind of difficult to be at the top of your game when you spend your morning and afternoon school bus rides breathing in high concentrations of VOCs, particulates, and other forms of pollution.

But hey, keep on thinking that what a child eats, drinks, and inhales has no impact on that child's ability to perform well in school.

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 9:25am

The insanity is overwhelming. The fumes NEVER entered our schools, NEVER bothered anyone that I have EVER heard complain in my sixty years of life. This BS pouring out from every Orpheus has got to STOP. You morons are driving We the People to our graves and pulling ALL kids out of your politicized, dumbing down, indoctrination stations/schools for their own well being. I for one know all about your dumbing down program that is working very successfully for your agenda. Too bad we have so many useful idiot's to the evil control freaks destroying everything good here in the good OLD USA...

Christine Temple
Thu, 10/10/2019 - 10:31am

I think you have been sniffing too much diesel or something.

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 7:13pm

Might you mean "orifice"?...as in "Orifice Descending"? (Forgiveness in advance from T Williams).

Sue Harney
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 10:29am

As one who has suffered lifelong asthma and becomes sick from diesel fumes, I say Bravo to Michigan. Quieter buses, VOC free air, free fuel (solar powered charging stations), what is not to like?! There are reams of studies showing that children are healthier and do better when they aren't exposed to diesal/traffic fumes.

Christine Temple
Thu, 10/10/2019 - 10:28am

As a child I suffered greatly from diesel fumes whenever I had to ride a bus. I still hate the smell to this day and will get sick from it. I applaud this for those children who suffer the same, and for the sake of our environment. We as a people need to do what we can because the ones who are in control [corporations] are not doing what they should.

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 11:47am

How about a cost benefit analysis?

Justin Bowen
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 1:56am

And how does one do that without comparing the lifetime outcomes of kids who we know for a fact are being harmed by being forced to inhale VOCs, particulates, and other pollutants that are produced by diesel engines - in other words, the control group - with the group of kids who we aren't forcing to inhale toxic pollutants?

It's a well-established fact that pollutants from diesel engines are harmful to human (and other forms of life) health. It's not some vast conspiracy by health professionals all over the world. The benefits of better student outcomes, increased lifetime productivity, and decreased health care costs are certain to outweigh any costs associated with purchasing the buses.

Gary Lea
Thu, 10/10/2019 - 1:28pm

Wow...remember that tabloid ‘author’ who went by the name of Ed Anger? I’m a senior citizen who owns and drives a Ford Focus Electric. If only the buses I rode had been electric, my rides to and from junior high might have been relaxing. Being inside of what smelled and sounded like a dump truck was my experience. There is nothing dumb about science or technology, it’s how we got to and walked on the moon. Study and learn - always!

Fred Stone
Fri, 10/11/2019 - 10:34am

Let start a fund that we can give to that will go to replacing all the diesel school buses with electric ones. Where do I sent my first hundred dollars?

Ruth Skelly
Sun, 10/13/2019 - 6:07am

and yet these school buses still don't have seat belts.

Doug L
Sun, 10/13/2019 - 10:11am

It will be interesting to see how well the electric buses work in the cold and snow of a Michigan winter. This is a big challenge because the cold temperatures reduce battery capacity at a time when extra electricity is needed to heat the interior and overcome the resistance of cold mechanical parts that do not move as easily as warm ones. I hope they are successful. But let us also remember, here in Michigan, the majority of our electricity comes from burning coal. Until we have clean sources of electricity, about all we do is to move the pollution from one place to another. The current plan of converting coal plants to natural gas will NOT resolve our issues.

Mon, 10/14/2019 - 6:18pm

That cost can't be right. School buses cost about $70 to $80k.

$4.2 million for 17 buses is about $250k each.

Hope that is a misprint. An extra $10k would be understandable but a $150k extra cost doesnt make sense.