For many, school memories include the noxious smell of diesel fumes wafting through the air. This August, Washoe County School District students will get a small reprieve from the harmful exhaust.
Every year, school buses emit 95 tons of air pollution, which contributes to poor air quality. Exhaust from these diesel buses contains over 40 toxic air pollutants that can cause asthma attacks in children, and heart attacks, lung cancer, and strokes in adult populations. Not only do buses emit these fumes into the surrounding environment, but the air quality inside buses is up to 10 times worse than the air outside. In Nevada, Washoe County School District is attempting to remedy this.
On July 2th, the WCSD Board of Trustees approved the purchase of two electric school buses. Over one million dollars in grant money from NV Energy and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection (NDEP) will cover all expenses, including two charging stations. In 2019 Nevada passed a bill to help school districts purchase electric vehicles. With the average cost of an electric bus being about $300,000 more than a diesel bus, programs emerging from this bill are essential to school districts affording them.
The school district has previously acquired NDEP funding to cover the cost of propane buses, which emit 43% fewer pollutants than diesel. Although these buses can improve air quality, electric buses are four times more efficient than buses running on natural gas. Furthermore, green energy grids in Nevada have led to fewer pollutants, making electricity-fueled vehicles more environmentally friendly than propane.
While some trustees questioned the possible return on the investment, the overall positive impact these buses will have is undisputed. One such benefit is the improvement of student health.
Compared to other states, Nevada has more air pollution. In the 2022 State of Air Rankings by the American Lung Association, Nevada and the Reno/Sparks area received an F in air quality. Over 7,000 children in Washoe County have asthma, and many live in poorer neighborhoods. Because of this, the school district will assign the new buses to Title I schools that serve low-income students. Besides helping children with asthma, using electric school buses can also reduce the incidence of bronchitis and pneumonia. One Washington study found that the reduction of diesel smog led to 37 percent fewer pediatric pneumonia cases among students.
Although Nevada is gradually reducing the number of children without health care, the state still lags behind most other states regarding children’s health. Increasing wildfires due to climate change have led to regulatory changes in Nevada. Last year, during the approval of the Nevada Clean Cars initiative, Cinthia Moore, an organizer for Moms Clean Air Force Nevada stated, “Uncontrollable wildfires made worse by climate change have led to very unhealthy air quality in Nevada. It’s hurting our most vulnerable people: children, the elderly, and anyone with underlying health conditions. That’s why Nevada’s leaders must work to reduce air pollution from sources we can control.”
In addition to health benefits, electric buses can help districts save money.
Despite a recent influx of federal money, overall state funding for education has remained insufficient. Inflation has led to additional expenses. School districts in Nevada get a set amount of funds for fuel every year from the state, yet these have not kept up with the dramatic rise in gasoline costs. Diesel prices in Nevada have gone up over a dollar per gallon since August of 2021, with the average diesel price in Reno 47% higher than last year. When inflation occurs, the school district must cover the remaining costs for fuel not covered by the state. Last school year, WCSD Transportation spent approximately $2.6 million on gas. This year they anticipate spending $3.3 million.
Savings also occur due to a reduction in maintenance costs. Typically, WCSD spends 10 to 11,000 dollars on diesel bus maintenance. But with electric buses, the district expects to spend only $1,000 annually.
Just south of the Sierra lies the first school district to add zero-emission e-buses to their fleet. Twin Rivers School District cites the reduced cost of maintenance as a prime benefit of the transition from diesel. Today they have 40 electric buses with a goal of going all-electric in the future. With this switch, the district hopes to save 80% on fuel and 60% on maintenance. Thanks to generous funding from the state of California, school districts can afford to purchase the more costly electric buses. In 2021, after spending over $110 million, California had 850 electric school buses in multiple districts.
On top of reducing costs and pollution, some school districts in California use e-buses to feed energy back into the electric grid. The Cajon Valley Union School District in San Diego has the West coast’s first vehicle-to-grid (V2G) program. This system allows buses to function as giant batteries that districts can use to supplement electricity during peak use. In Nevada, NV Energy is initiating a pilot V2G program targeting large school districts. Any energy discharged into the grid is refunded to the school district as a monetary credit. The ability of e-buses to provide consistent power in times of energy fluctuations helps Nevada to transition to renewable energy sources. During the day, when more solar energy is available, buses can store electricity and then release it to the grid at night. All this can help the district recoup any costs associated with purchasing additional electric vehicles.
With the cost of transporting students rising yearly, cash-strapped districts in Nevada can benefit from any financial incentives that help pay for electric buses. Western states’ unique air quality challenges make replacing diesel-powered buses imperative. Time can only tell if federal and state agencies can help school districts move towards all-electric fleets. Still, the recent move by WCSD can be an indication of an environmentally friendly future for Nevada.
Shelley Buchanan writes about education, conservation, and social justice issues for the Sierra Nevada Ally. She is a forty-year resident of Northern Nevada having worked as an English teacher, school librarian, and school technology specialist. Support her work here.
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