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What’s an electric bus’s superpower? Mac Dressman explains vehicle-to-grid tech, and the $5 billion awarded to clean up America’s school buses

As part of our annual report 2021: Our Air in Review, we spoke to Mac Dressman, an associate on the Electric Buses for America campaign with grassroots nonprofit advocacy group PIRG.

Mac writes about and advocates for sustainable transportation policy. He is currently based in Chicago, Illinois, grew up in Champaign, Illinois and graduated from Georgetown University in 2020.

He spoke to us about how electric school buses can have a positive impact on air quality, improve children’s health, and even help provide power during blackouts.

The bipartisan infrastructure investment package passed by Congress provides $2.5 billion in funding specifically for zero-emission electric school buses and an additional $2.5 billion for all types of low-emission school buses. Why is this such an important milestone for U.S. PIRG?

When the first electric school bus in the United States rolled out in Kings Canyon Unified School District in Central California in 2014, the nationwide transition to electric buses seemed like a pipe dream. But now, only seven years later, kids from Florida to North Dakota are getting a clean ride to school, and the federal government is funding thousands more buses across the country. 

Getting bipartisan agreement on $2.5 billion in federal funding for electric school buses is a huge achievement; it shows that clean air doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Politicians are starting to take action on reducing pollution from transportation, and that doesn’t happen without popular support. PIRG has been working for years to inform decision makers, connect and support key actors, and mobilise the public. Winning $2.5 billion in federal funding for electric school buses is a testament to the power of citizen advocacy to protect public health and the environment.

In February, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland signed a contract to convert its entire fleet to zero-emission electric buses, starting with 326 buses over the next four years.

What impact will this have on air quality in the city and how will this affect children specifically?

Investing in electric buses will have a significant impact on air quality, especially for children. According to the EPA, air pollution at schools, including concentrations of benzene and formaldehyde, is higher during the hour when children are being picked up. That means kids, who already have more sensitive lungs, are exposed to dangerous levels of diesel pollution every time they go to school. Furthermore, studies have found that the level of soot, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides to which vehicle passengers were exposed was 11 times higher when following a diesel bus compared to following no vehicle. Diesel pollution has also been found to be even worse inside buses.

Electric buses don’t emit any tailpipe emissions, dramatically reducing the amount of harmful diesel pollution that passengers and nearby people are exposed to on a daily basis. If we can remove a major source of diesel pollution from our roads and schools, we’re going to see a lot less asthma and heart disease and a lot more healthy kids (and adults). Electric buses also have significant climate benefits; 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.

The New York City Council recently voted to mandate that the city’s school bus fleet must be fully electric by 2035.

You’ve written about how electric buses can help during blackouts. What is vehicle-to-grid technology and what infrastructure is needed to support this?

Vehicle-to-grid technology allows electric vehicles to not only receive and store power from the electrical grid, but also to use the vehicle’s stored energy to charge other things. Electric buses are essentially batteries on wheels, which could be used as emergency power sources during blackouts. Let’s say a hurricane knocks out power for thousands of people and key services like supermarket refrigeration, internet and water infrastructure are unable to operate as a result. Electric buses, which still have some power in their batteries after charging the night before, could drive to key locations and use their stored power to temporarily restore power to these key services before the electrical grid can turn back on. Using electric vehicles instead of fossil fuel-powered portable generators could save lives; tragically, carbon monoxide poisoning from using portable generators is a significant cause of death in the aftermath of weather disasters.

To make electric buses effective in this role, both electrical grids, facilities and vehicles need to be equipped with compatible vehicle-to-grid technologies. Municipalities would also need to prepare their emergency plans and blackout response tactics to deploy electric buses as mobile chargers effectively. 

Austin, Texas is taking the lead on transit bus electrification, purchasing 197 electric buses in one of the nation’s largest electric vehicle procurements to date.

This year has seen some important milestones in the transition to electric buses. What are the biggest highlights and what would you like to see happen going forward?

The biggest highlight for electric buses, besides the bipartisan federal funding for electric school buses mentioned earlier, is the leadership that many cities and school districts are taking on large-scale transitions to electric buses.

These are some really exciting achievements, and I’m hopeful that more cities and school districts across the country will follow suit. I’d love to see America’s biggest cities set ambitious goals on electrifying their transit and school bus fleets, and follow through with purchases that will actually meet or surpass those goals. I know a lot of schools and cities like the idea of electric buses but are having trouble affording the transition, so ensuring that federal and state funding is there to support them is essential. I’m also excited to see the electric vehicle manufacturing and implementation industries expand to meet the needs of the public and make these vehicles more mainstream. Overall, the future of electric buses seems bright, but we have to keep working hard to ensure that the transition happens at the pace necessary to address the large-scale health and environmental challenges the public faces.

Download 2021: Our Air in Review to read more interviews and discover findings from our latest research.