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N.J. should spend $45M on electric school buses | Opinion

Senator Patrick Diegnan and Hayley Berliner | November 12, 2021 | Star-Ledger |


Sixteen years after voters passed a ballot measure to retrofit publicly owned diesel vehicles — including school buses — to reduce exposure to harmful pollutants, technological advances have positioned New Jersey to exponentially improve air quality and our children’s health by embarking on a complete transition from dirty diesel to clean, electric school buses.

State lawmakers recently introduced legislation (S4077) to electrify school buses in New Jersey through a pilot program with $45 million in grants from the state’s Clean Energy Fund and other sources.

The legislation would fund for three years the purchase of new electric school buses and the necessary charging infrastructure in six school districts across the state.

The measure would extend the state’s initial investment of $12 million in electric school buses, which the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) made, providing 32 electric school buses and related charging infrastructure to seven cities through proceeds from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the Volkswagen “Dieselgate” settlement.

Nearly 95% of all school buses nationwide operate on dirty diesel fuel, including more than 15,000 in New Jersey. Those buses expose children to toxic emissions on their daily rides to school. Not only do kids breathe these pollutants while waiting to be transported, but exhaust fumes penetrate the cabin of the bus as it drives, and get sucked in each time the doors open, exposing everyone on board to higher levels of toxic nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.

These pollutants are known to cause and exacerbate asthma, respiratory diseases, and lung cancer. Additionally, a study from Rutgers University revealed children have higher levels of lung inflammation on days when they are subjected to more diesel air pollution, such as those when they ride a school bus.

Electric school buses have multiple benefits beyond public health improvements. First, they will reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. In fact, transitioning the country’s entire diesel school bus fleet to electric could prevent an average of 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gases from being emitted each year.

Second, they are cheaper to own over the life of the vehicles than diesel alternatives due to a combination of lower fuel and maintenance costs and because vehicle-to-grid capabilities would allow school districts to sell electric buses stored energy back to the utility. A study from the University of Delaware estimates one electric school bus could save a district about $230,000 over its 14-year lifespan.

Mass adoption of electric school bus technology faces one big challenge. The sticker price of a new electric school bus can be nearly triple that of a new diesel bus, making it difficult for most school districts to afford an immediate transition. While battery technology is improving and the cost of electric school buses is decreasing, New Jersey could benefit from additional state and federal investments and incentives, which would enable these vehicles to make a serious dent in public health and greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill includes $5 billion in funding for electric school buses, while the Build Back Better Act could include additional funding. RGGI should generate at least another $90 million this year, with nearly $70 million earmarked for medium- and heavy-duty electrification projects.

The charging infrastructure for electric buses is costly, too, a concern for all school districts. Many districts rely on buses to transport students to sporting events, band competitions, and field trips. Some also rent their buses out for the summer. These buses, which require places to charge when going on longer drives, would benefit from utilities installing fast-charging stations both for school districts and along the state’s major corridors.

The Board of Public Utilities is working to respond to public comments on a Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicle Straw Proposal, which should hopefully lead to significant utility investment in charging infrastructure.

Gov. Phil Murphy has established New Jersey as a leader for electric transportation for everything from passenger cars to tractor-trailers. Every town in the state has school buses roaming its roads, which should be included in the state vehicle electrification strategy. Moving forward on electric school buses with significant investments from utilities, the NJDEP, and other state funding through the passage of the electric school bus legislation will provide immediate public health benefits.

We can’t afford to wait another 16 years to take the next step in reducing harmful pollutants that threaten our children’s health and the air they breathe.