Electrifying Minnesota school bus fleet will pay big dividends | Opinion

March 2, 2022 6:00 am

Kids in the Osseo School District call this electric school bus the “Tesla Bus.” Courtesy photo.

It’s time for Minnesota to electrify our school bus fleet. 

The biggest winners when we do it will be our school kids. Diesel fumes inside of buses and at bus stops are respiratory hazards for developing lungs. Ground level air pollution in high-density and high-traffic neighborhoods has been shown to disproportionately impact low income and marginalized communities. There is strong correlational data showing that exposure to air pollution leads to poorer grades and increased absenteeism. Especially in denser areas, cleaning up our buses and converting other diesel trucks to electric will have measurable health benefits. And, reducing the amount of pollution drivers are exposed to also helps create safer jobs. 

Thankfully, we’ve started electrifying the fleet, though not nearly quickly enough. 

The first all-electric school bus in Minnesota started picking up Lakeville students in fall 2017. For the next four years, this was the only electric school bus running regularly. Eight new electric school buses were granted last year, and most of these are already on the road, including on the streets of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, serving the Osseo School District. The other new buses will be in Faribault, Columbia Heights, Morris and Fergus Falls. 

Kids in Lakeville and Osseo are excited to be riding these new buses and have dubbed the Lakeville bus the “Ice Cream Bus” because of the music it plays at low speeds (it is very quiet otherwise.) Kids are calling the Osseo vehicle the “Tesla Bus.”  

Minnesota’s share of the Volkswagen pollution cheating scandal settlement played a big part in adding to our electric school bus fleet. In 2021, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency allocated $4.7MM of the settlement for the purchase of electric school buses. The electric buses are more expensive at time of sale than a standard bus, but the difference was made up with the settlement money at no expense to taxpayers. Rebecca Place, the MPCA coordinator for the grant, said that the agency received applications for 41 electric buses. 

Regarding cost: Over its lifetime and given the health and climate benefits, an electric school bus at full price is still more cost effective than diesel. They benefit from cheaper fuel,  lower maintenance costs and a longer lifespan.

The health benefits of electrifying our fleet of trucks and buses also mean savings.  According to the MPCA, between 2,000 and 4,000 Minnesotans die each year due to air pollution. Reducing vehicle pollution will result in hundreds fewer premature deaths and hospital visits each year. 

Electric vehicle fleets also promote economic stability and local-self reliance. Interruptions in the supply of petroleum should untoward events occur on the international stage — like Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine — will not affect the price or availability of wind and solar generated electricity.  Also, battery prices, which have plummeted in the past 10 years, are expected to drop even further and may become more technologically advanced. Which could mean significant improvements in range and reduction in cost. Finally, the use of home grown, often Minnesota-made electricity to power our fleet of buses and trucks — instead of spending our money in other states or other countries — has huge economic benefits.

An electric and conventional bus will be the same price after about 12 years of regular use, according to the transportation managers responsible for the electric buses.

How do we fund the upfront costs of this transition? To make it easier for districts to plan to transition, Rep. Athena Hollins will be re-introducing a bill this year to create more avenues for schools to get electric buses by splitting the purchase price of buses between the school district, the state and Xcel Energy. The House Climate Caucus also plans to ask for $20 million to help fund the transition. Given the state budget surplus, now is the time. 

Electric utilities such as Xcel Energy, Great River Energy and Dakota Electric are also doing their part to hasten this transition. The utilities are helping with charging infrastructure and offering energy credits to incentivize schools to fuel their buses with electrons instead of diesel. 

The federal infrastructure bill made $2.5 billion available for electric school buses and $2.5 billion for low emission buses. 

In short, the buses are great, the price is right, and the money is there.  

But not necessarily in Minnesota, which hasn’t created a comprehensive plan to transition its buses; we are positioning ourselves to miss out on that investment. 

Unlike 16 other states, Minnesota has not set goals or commitments to replace conventional school buses or medium and heavy duty vehicles with electric. 

At the local level, we are seeing some progress. Metro Transit just announced a zero emission bus plan, and the cities of Duluth, St. Cloud and Rochester have had electric buses on the ground for years. This has been despite state government inaction. 

Advocates like myself have asked state government to set goals for medium and heavy duty vehicle emission reductions this year, but have received little traction. 

There are also jobs at stake. To bring them to fruition, our state needs to set goals — not just to hit the climate goals we are legally bound to meet in the Next Generation Energy Act — but to create a robust green economy that keeps manufacturing in Minnesota. Electric vehicle manufacturing provides more than 1,000 jobs in Minnesota, most of which are seen at the New Flyer and Zeus facilities. Lion Electric, one of the biggest manufacturers of electric school buses, is creating a new facility in Iowa, which will employ 745. Proterra, another manufacturer, grew from 200 jobs to 1,000 last year. 

According to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, the U.S. auto sector could require an increase of over 150,000 jobs if electric vehicles rise to 50% of domestic auto sales in 2030.

Minnesota’s going to miss out on these jobs and this investment if we don’t start positioning ourselves now. 

To support the development of these policies, the Coalition for Clean Transportation is releasing a report soon delineating the economic, health and climate benefits of adopting medium and heavy duty vehicle emission reduction policies. MN350 is also working to highlight the cities which are electrifying fleets across the state, and push state level leadership to set goals, at The Bus Back Better Symposium on March 10

Speeding the transition to electric vehicles is the moral thing to do, and happily, comes with great economic benefits. Take note Gov. Tim Walz: This is a “One Minnesota” policy. We all breathe the air and rely on a stable climate. Hopefully our state’s leadership will position Minnesota to benefit from the billions in investment and potential for thousands of new jobs by acting this year.

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Madi Johnson
Madi Johnson

Madi Johnson is a climate justice organizer with MN350 living in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is focusing on reducing emissions from transportation, especially from large vehicles like buses.