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Miami middle-school student inspires school board to electrify its school bus fleet

Electric school buses seem like a no-brainer at this point—although they cost two to three times more up front than diesel buses, at about $230,000 each, they save money in the long run, as fuel and maintenance costs are about 80 percent lower. They’re also prime candidates for future vehicle-to-grid (V2G) applications, which could generate income for school districts during the buses’ down time.

The kicker is that grant money is available to cover much of the up-front costs. Many states have devoted parts of their shares of the $2.8-billion settlement fund generated by Volkswagen’s Dirty Diesel Debacle to incentivizing e-bus purchases. In November, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced the availability of $57 million for school districts within designated Air Quality Priority Areas (which include the state’s most populous metro areas) for the purchase of electric school buses.

Several school districts have applied for the grants, including Pinellas County Schools, which serves Charged’s home town of St Petersburg.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the largest school district in the Southeastern US, operates a fleet of 1,060 school buses that transport 45,000 children daily. The agency’s decision to apply for a grant was in part inspired by student Holly Thorpe, whose science fair project demonstrated that CO2 fumes inside buses were 10 times higher than recommended EPA limits.

Holly is a student at the Maritime and Science Technology Academy (MAST), a public high school in Miami. For her science project, she tested CO2 levels inside buses, and found concentrations as high as 5,000 parts per million. In her report, she noted that the EPA lists 350 ppm as “normal,” 450 as “acceptable,” and over 2,500 as a level at which “adverse health effects are expected.”

A year after she presented her findings to school board members, and encouraged them to switch to zero-emissions buses, the district has taken the first step to electrify its fleet. “We’re finally going to turn the yellow school bus green,” Thorpe told the Miami Herald. “Electric school buses are essential for the health of students and drivers.”

“Students know they will be faced with the dire consequences of climate change and they are the ones motivating the district to feel a sense of urgency and care about becoming the greenest and most equitable school system it can be,” said Michele Drucker, Environmental Chair of the Miami-Dade PTSA Council. “There is money available to cover initial capital costs. District administrators just need to change their mindset and accept the technology.”

Lion Electric, a Quebec-based company that has 370 electric school buses operating in Canada and the US, recently staged a demonstration drive for students and parents, and several spoke about the importance of going electric.

“On a normal school bus you have to hold your breath, it’s dirty, loud, uncomfortable—nobody wants to ride the bus,” said MAST eleventh-grader Thomas Brulay. “This ride felt completely different. It felt like progress.”

Coral Gables High student Gabriela McGrath-Moreira told the Herald that students are discouraged from using buses as a transit option “because it’s so unpleasant and you have to yell to be heard,” so they end up driving or being driven to school instead, adding to the reliance on fossil fuels.

The air-conditioned Lion C, one of three models available from the company, has a 100-mile range, and takes about 6 hours to completely recharge.

“For the driver, it’s an improved experience not only in operating the bus but in monitoring the passengers because you can hear them, it’s less chaotic,” said bus driver Richard Lee, who is Lion’s Director of US Bus Sales. “Climate change is here and we’ve got to fix it. Will I see the day when everything is 100 percent electric? No, but my grandchildren’s future depends on it.”

Sources: Miami Herald, WMNF

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