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NDEW 2021: Electric School Buses: Communities in the Driver’s Seat

NDEW 2021: Electric School Buses: Communities in the Driver’s Seat

This live event occurred on October 1, 2021 as part of Generation180’s event series celebrating National Drive Electric Week.

Half a million school buses are in use in the United States, most of them running on diesel. For the sake of the 20 million children who ride the bus each day, school buses need to be at the forefront of transportation electrification. In this event, we heard directly from those who are advocating to make the switch:


Tish Tablan: Hello, everyone, my name is Tish Tablan. I’m a program director at Generation180, and I’m excited to be your event host today. We’re glad to have you join us today for National Drive Electric Week. Generation180 has been hosting an event each day of this week. And I’m honored to get to wrap up the series with today’s topic: Electric school buses, communities in the driver’s seat. Each day, 25 million students ride school buses, which are mostly loud, polluting diesel buses that are harmful to the health of children and communities. Parents, students and community members are leading the charge to electrify the school buses. And today we’ll get to hear from two of those community leaders who are sparking change in Phoenix, Arizona, which is known for having some of the worst air pollution in the country. And in Miami, Florida, which houses the fourth largest school district in the country. So we’re glad to have you with us today. So you can join us and hear their stories.

Before we get started, I will share a few reminders. All attendees are already muted with video turned off. If you have any questions, we will answer them at the end. But please put your questions in the Q&A box instead of the chat, and we will have a recording available after the session and you’ll be receiving an email with a link. So let’s get started. Next slide, please.

So today’s event is brought to you by 3 non-profit organizations working together on the electrification of school buses, Generation180 works to inspire and equip people to take clean energy action in their homes and communities. We focus on helping school districts access the benefits of clean energy technologies such as solar and electric buses. We empower school community leaders to be champions for clean energy and support other school districts to make the switch. Our partner, World Resources Institute, is a global research organization that develops practical solutions that improve people’s lives and protect nature. We have with us today WRIs director of the Electric School Bus Initiative, which aims to make healthier and more equitable electric mobility the new normal for an entire generation by electrifying the entire US fleet of 480,000 school buses by 2030. It’s an ambitious vision. CHISPA envisions an inclusive and reflective democracy where the Latinx community is rights to clean air and water. Healthy neighborhoods and a safe climate are well protected for generations to come, and we’ll be hearing more today from our panelists about the success of their Clean Rides for Healthy Ninos campaign in Arizona. So thank you to my colleagues at Generation180, WRI, and CHISPA for your support and putting together a fantastic event today. Next slide.

I now have the pleasure of introducing our amazing speakers today. Sue Gander, the director of the electric school bus initiative at WRI, will be playing a dual role of both presenter and co-host today. So prior to WRI, she was the managing director of policy for the electrification coalition, where she worked to accelerate the adoption of EVs at scale. So these previous work also includes directing the energy infrastructure and environment division at the National Governors Association and serving at the US EPA center for clean air policy. Sue is also the founder and chair of the Women of electric vehicles DC chapter. So it’s my pleasure to hand it over to Sue now, who will introduce our other two panelists?

The ‘Going Electric’ pledge:

“I want to help accelerate the transition to 100% clean energy. I pledge to make the next vehicle I purchase an electric car.”

Sue Gander: Great thank you so much, Tish. It’s great to be with all of you to help celebrate National Drive Electric Week, and we’re looking forward to the day where every week, every day when we drive, we’re driving electric. And school buses are a really important part of driving electric in, particularly because kids can’t drive. So we need to make sure that what they ride in is as safe as healthy as possible and really thrilled to introduce you to the two folks on the ground that are helping make this happen. Amazing leaders in this space. So we’re going to hear from both Masavi Perea today, as well as Michelle Drucker. Let me just say a little bit about them. Normally, I don’t give a full bio of speakers, but they are both such amazing people. I really think you’ll appreciate what they have to say, even more by getting to know them a little bit.

So Masavi Perea is the organizing director for CHISPA Arizona. For the last five years, he’s been building coalitions across Arizona. It’s a program of the League of Conservation Voters. It’s growing Latinx voices, political power and civic engagement for a cleaner future in Arizona. He helped launch the Clean Buses for Healthy Nino’s campaign in Arizona, and as Tish mentioned, it’s a state with really poor air quality. It’s the fifth-worst air pollution in the country. Before this role, Masavi was an organizer with the roofers union and a painters union. And in those roles as a labor rights activist, he helped establish a Workers’ Center in Phoenix in the Phoenix area. He’s originally from Chihuahua Mexico, which if folks know it’s the land of the indigenous Murray people and he’s been involved in immigrants rights movements from early on. Really important personal statement here. Masavi believes that working together with those who have been in the front lines and organizing our communities from the base are the most effective ways to positively impact individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities and our Mother Earth. And you’ll get to hear him say more of that for himself, but really delighted to hear from him and hear about the work going on in Arizona. And, you know, just really excited about the work that CHISPA has been doing in this area.

We’re also going to hear from Michelle Drucker. She’s a PTSA leader with the miami-dade County Public schools, and I’ve gotten to know Michelle through her work with DuVernay in advancing their efforts there. She serves as the vice chair for the 100% clean energy task force at the miami-dade County Public schools. It’s the fourth largest school district in the country, so again, a really large area that’s going to have a lot of impact overall, I guess. In her day job, she serves as assistant Chief Counsel for the Department of Homeland security, where she’s worked for over 2 decades, and she found her passion for sustainability. She’s been recognized for sustainability efforts within that department. And has turned her vision there and her passion there to working towards sustainability at her children’s school. So she’s a PTSA leader at the mass Academy High School, and she launched the green champions program for students and parents, and they’re working towards making the school a net zero energy and net zero waste school. Their advocacy has spread across the city and led to the district passing an ambitious resolution, committing to 100% clean energy by 2030. So really inspiring leaders, and I think they demonstrate how small efforts lead to larger efforts lead to a movement, and we want to see that movement succeed across the country. So excited to have them with us. We’re going to get into a little bit of a panel discussion with them and then have some time for Q&A.

But I’m going to start off with just a quick set of slides to kind of level set everyone on where are we with the electrification of the school bus fleet so we can kind of get that out of the way. So thank you for teeing up those slides here. So why? Why do we care about electrifying the school bus fleet? We heard about the die, very ambitious goal, and one reason is that we can the technologies here today. We’re already meeting the needs of students and school districts. !invisible!, through buses that are being deployed across the country, but it’s also a matter of we can’t not do this if we want to address the need to decarbonize the transportation sector, also improve air quality health outcomes, provide resiliency opportunities, integrate renewable support economic development in an industry that’s very US focus. This is our answer here and we have the opportunity to do it. So we’re excited to move quickly with a sense of urgency that entails. The next thing I really want to lean in on is the focus on equity at debris. We’re sending our work on equity. And we encourage others to think about this as well. We know that kids everywhere are being exposed to pollution. That’s affecting their health and their cognitive abilities. But we also know that kids from disadvantaged communities and communities of color are more likely to ride the bus. And and, you know, therefore or are more exposed to these damaging impacts than their counterparts. And those same kids also face underlying conditions that affect their ability to learn and to thrive. So we’re sending X-ray to help ensure that the benefits of electric school buses are attainable and accessible to those that are facing the greatest challenges. And by doing that, we’re creating benefits for everyone. So electric school buses, there are great technology, they have multiple benefits, they’re here today. What’s standing in the way? There’s a number of challenges out there. We know that there are higher costs up front. The current price tag is approximately three times that of a diesel bus. We need to work on getting that lower and making them more accessible. We know that infrastructure development takes time, takes money. We need to have the interconnections and the availability for the buses to be able to charge up. We know this is a new technology on. Most school districts are not familiar with it. So we need to make them comfortable, help them get comfortable and have them share out their experiences. We know also that there’s a number of technology myths that persist. One of the largest ones that we continually hear about is that school buses don’t have the range to meet the needs of school districts. But what we’ve seen in the data has shown is that the current buses fulfill the needs of about 90% of the routes that are out there in terms of the ability to travel long distances. So getting information about those myths and demystifying this technology is really critical. And we also need to scale quickly if we really want to address the urgency of air quality and the urgency of climate change. And that’s going to take a lot of effort to move to that move to that point of where we want to be in 2030. Overall, these challenges do impact disadvantaged communities disproportionately. So again, it circles back to the opportunity and the need to focus on equitable solutions. So where are we now? We’re just getting started. We’re kind of out of the depot, but we have a ways to go to reach what we hope is a tipping point for electric school buses in the next five years. So we have about 100 electric school buses that have been procured, delivered or an operation in the US out of that fleet of 480,000. So it’s less than 1% If you’re kind of doing the math at home. But we also know that there’s at least one electric school bus in 33 states, so we’re showing that it works. We’re showing that there’s demand and there’s interest across the country. They are concentrated in more of a handful of school districts. Of the 13,000 school districts that are out there, about 300 of them have 2% of all the, Ah, there’s 2% of those have the electric school buses. So, you know, that’s a relatively small number. There they are in areas that are most vulnerable. And so that’s good to see that there’s a connection there, and they’re largely in suburban areas, but kind of spread across the kind of towns and rural areas. So again, we’re seeing that there’s, you know, there’s interest, there’s demand and there’s applicability across all sorts of geographies as well. So what’s on the horizon? One of the big topics going on is the funding that is, we hope, going to be available. I know it’s, you know, up and down on an hourly and a daily basis at the federal level. But we’re pleased that the infrastructure investment and Jobs Act has included two funding streams to support electric school buses. One is a $2.5 billion pot over five years for zero emission buses only, and one is another one that includes also low emission school buses. And of course, we’re hopeful that most of that goes towards zero emission buses. There’s also a current program that just got released yesterday that I want to flag for folks. It’s under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. There’s a $7 million pot coming out through EPA to fund electric school buses only, and it’s targeted towards underserved communities with air quality and health challenges. So really encourage folks to look into that. The deadline is in November to get those applications in. It’s a pretty easy as we understand application, it’s a two page application, so we really encourage people to look at that. It’s a limited number of buses. It’s going to be about, you know, maybe in a couple of dozens of buses, but it’s a $300,000 opportunity per bus. And then, of course, there’s also opportunities for additional allocations of VW settlement funds. There’s utility programs for vehicles and infrastructure and a host of state and federal regulatory efforts. So there’s a lot of action happening at all levels of policy making, and that’s a great platform for the community action that’s happening and that we’re going to hear about from our two panelists. So turn it back over to you, Tish, to lead us into that discussion.

TT: Great, thank you so much, sue, for setting up the landscape of where we are in the country with advancing electric school buses and sharing some resources we should know about. So it sounds like we have a long way to go with a number of buses we have on the road. So I hope this gives our audience a real sense of just how ahead of the curve, our two panelists are here today and working with their communities. They are true leaders and I’m excited to dive in and have them tell us more about their campaigns. So Masavi, can you turn your video back on, please? And michelle? Michelle, why don’t we start with you? It would be great if you can just give us an overview of your community’s electric school bus campaign. Just describe the school district’s commitments and the progress and the implementation that’s been achieved. And then also circle back to how did it get started. You know, I think this is a great story to tell, and we’d love to hear it.

Michelle Drucker: OK, thank you. And I am a little late to get here because we were just finishing up 100% clean energy task force meeting where we talked about those funds that you mentioned as well, too. So and that really all got started because of an initiative within one school. We have a program at a Marine Stewardship and stem theme school in Miami called mast academy, and we were seeking Florida Department of Florida Department of Environmental Protection green Apple school status. And one of the recommendations is a no idling campaign. And we have a covered loading zone and the emissions were quite bad. So the student went out. She measured the emissions. She was shocked to see that the emissions were 10 times higher than the EPA’S recommended, I guess 500 parts per million just for CO2. And it was a simple little syringe full. It wasn’t even sophisticated equipment, and she won a statewide science fair competition. Based on that, she brought the data to her school board member. At this time, we were learning about the Volkswagen settlement funds and we showed up at a school board meeting and Holly presented her information. I mean, it was just three minutes. That’s all you get to speak, and we said, hey, please, let’s pursue this funding. The air quality is a big problem at our school with the buses and the first go around, there was a lot of resistance. We’re really not interested, but we just kept coming back. And we just applied that pressure because how can you say no to free? And it is hard when you’re dealing with old habits and inertia and things like that. And you have a bus, there’s a bus driver shortage. I mean, it feels a little bit tone deaf, I guess, to say, hey, we want electric buses when they can’t even get drivers, but it’s been well received and we actually showed up a second time we had the bus drivers union also show up. The second time to make sure they did apply for these funds, and they said, we really want this as well for our drivers because Lifetime drivers get COPD and terrible lung conditions. And the other benefit of these buses is they’re quiet. So we brought an electric bus down to Miami to really just put that final nail in to make sure that they did apply for this money. So miami-dade schools, not every district apply, but miami-dade schools applied for 50 buses. They’re getting $11.6 million over a four years. It’ll be 10 buses, 10, 15, 15 out of a fleet of 1,200. So we are looking to scale up the electrification faster because our kids are very motivated to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030, as urged by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on climate change. So that really motivates our students and our families, and that’s how we ended up with in front of you guys today. So thank you for wanting to hear about our story.

TT: Yeah, Michelle, that’s so exciting to hear about the students start the spark to this campaign and really having students be the ones to speak up and measure emissions in your own kind of parking area where the emissions are just collecting underneath that canopy. And I love that you got bus driver voices included as well, but they want to advocate for their own health. And in case you missed that, Michelle was mentioning she was late because her job, her volunteer had as an advocate never ends. She was just coming from her 100% clean energy task force meeting where they were talking about this. So it truly gives you a sense of how dedicated they are to this. This is I have they’re wearing all the time, Masavi. I’d love to hear your story as well. If you can give us an overview of how your campaign got started and where you are and what kind of progress you’ve made with electric school buses in the Phoenix area.

Masavi Perea: Yes, absolutely. Thank you. Good morning and good afternoon, everyone. Alex is nice to hear from you. You know, I’m very excited because of this conversation, because when we started almost five years ago, you know, we didn’t know how to start. We were connecting environmental justice with our community. And then we learn about the bushwhacking sentiment and we saw that as an opportunity. So after many conversations with the community, you know, we kind of agree that as they reported before, right in Phoenix, Maricopa county, the air quality it is, it is horrible. So we were like, OK, how can we work in this? So and then we say, OK, let’s start with the youngest. Let’s start with the most vulnerable community, which are the kids. So that’s when we start looking for options, and that’s when we start that clean buses for healthy meals. And it was a lot of conversations with community with parents, but also very interesting because when we were talking with electoral officials, they were like, OK, that’s a good idea. And then when we were talking with administrators a little bit, when Michelle said they were like, no, we have many other priorities, right? So for me, like this conversation this week, this is kind of like a dream because four or five years ago, we never thought that this could be possible. You know, actually, the background picture that I have here is that when I met the first electric bus and I have my two kids there, right? This one of the reasons why I’m doing this too, right? But I mean, they were very excited because they were like that. I don’t think that that ever that’s going to happen to have electric bus, you know, but now it’s a reality. So, so we did a study with many conversations like so was one issue that in Maricopa is affecting our community. The latinx community or Niños or kids is asthma in. There are rates in Maricopa County that are in some places and some school districts. We have up to 40% of kids are affected by asthma. And of course, those kids are brown and black. Right so that was an excuse to continue organizing. And now we are very happy, right? As the report bus at the beginning of this conversation, right? There are some electric buses around. And in Arizona, we have two electric buses running right now and then we have more coming up. And the good news is that our other school district there start calling us like, hey, how can we work together? You know, after four years of knocking doors that no one was listening of, you know, being on all these very interesting school district meetings, right? But the most important to have parents like buying the idea and fighting for environmental justice.

SG: I just wanted to actually pick up on that a little bit. Masavi, and, you know, through your experience and in, you know, just so glad that you kept up the fight, right to be able to be here when hopefully we’re on the precipice of getting additional funding that you and others can use? Do you have any advice for the parents, the advocates that are out there listening to this? What can they do if they want to get something started in their community or want to help support the movement that might be started in a community just in any kind of tidbits or advice you want to offer?

MP: So that’s a very good question. Thank you for that. Well, the base is to start a conversation with the community, right? Our community is very noticeable. You know, we are very resilient, you know, but also we are very open to the change. We are very open to the challenge, right? So to have that conversation with the community, you know, and ask them, like, how do you think that we can get better? How how do you think that we can solve these issues? Right so participation, engagement and be very open? You know, I remember like a couple, a couple of moms, they used to ask me, hey, we can just put like a solar panel, one of these buses, and then it’s going to be electric. And I’m like, whoa, I love that it will be that easy. You know, so has to be like a process of education and also something very interesting. So as we know, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, right? There are many organizations who are already working and they have a lot of information. So we have to bring also the experts, right, because we choose Verizon, right? Let’s say that we are experts in community, right, engaging in community, but we are not experts in anything and in technology, but the technology is out there. So I think the eye opening the aha moments that we have us as an organization parents, but also elected officials and administrators, that was amazing to see like that all these technologies are already available, right? And of course, right. One of the conflicts at the beginning was a lack of resources. Right but I mean, also what we learned later is that the schools, they are going to be saving money. And most important, the health sector is going to save a lot of money too, right? Because our kids are going to be more healthy. And that is also something that pushes. I don’t know if the rest of the community right, but on the Latino community, when you start talking about your kids, you know, parents like, OK, now I’m listening, you know, and that was I think that was a very important moment in your campaign, and that’s something that I will recommend, right? Let’s talk about their kids are present and future kids.

SG: Yeah well, Michelle, I’m wondering maybe if you can add on to that with your experience and your advice to other parents, other students and folks that want to support them.

MD: So I can tell you that, honestly, following Holly’s model and she it was maybe a $10 syringe with a little tube and she measured emissions and go to your school board members, show up at your school board. There is so much data. Test scores have been shown to go up. There’s actually a Wall Street Journal article that they said poor English because they are measuring about almost an 8% improvement in English scores. Also, the buses are quieter and I think things like bullying and if a child’s in distress, you can hear the kids on the bus. I think it just creates a calmer experience for the children. They brought a bus down and the kids rode it and they loved it. The drivers love it. It’s just a win-win all around, and I would just go, talk to your school board member, say, hey, they’re doing this in Miami. There’s money out there. Why can’t we do this? What do you need from us to move this forward? One other thing we reached out to because we’re a STEM school and it’s in it, even though it’s a magnet, it’s a pretty affluent student population. We did reach out to the NAACP and a lot of their drivers. You know, a lot of these blue collar jobs are from that community. So it really resonated with them and getting that, getting that, that equity piece in there, it just makes the messaging. So much more palatable than, you know, kids that privileged kids saying, I want an electric bus. It just comes more powerfully when you include the whole community. And that wasn’t hard for us to do because there is an equity inclusion part with NAACP as well as you’ve got the CHISPA program as well. So everybody wants this. It’s just a matter of showing them that the political will is out there.

TT: I love that. That’s a great point, Michelle. I mean, really, this is a bunch of school buses benefit everyone. I think that’s such a compelling reason to transition to electric buses. And, you know, miami-dade County Public schools in particular, it’s the fourth largest school district in the country, with over 350,000 students. And you’re part of this big metropolitan area, you know, kind of tapping into what you’re saying about reaching out to other people and other partners. Can you talk a little bit more about how do you transform such a large district? There may be other folks and big districts out there, though, like how do I even start touching this? And it seem daunting, so you can add on to like, how do you start getting by? You know, you started with one student in a STEM Academy in your district, and it seems like it’s grown well beyond that. So how did you get from the one student and a couple of parents phase to a big district commitment, going 100% clean energy?

MD: You just keep showing up. Just be persistent. We live, we live here and down in Florida. We have the Everglades and the mother of the Everglades is a Marjory Stoneman Douglas. And she used to say, you know, be persistent when it counts. Just be a nuisance. Keep showing up. You know, pick your battles, don’t be in their face. But if you just keep showing up, it’s such a no brainer that someone is going to finally get traction. We did get news coverage as well. And we had a lot of kids that were interested. There’s just there is a lot of interest in there. You just need to ask the kids if we’ll show up to a school board meeting and I think you’ll get a lot of response.

SG: With that, so Masavi, I’m wondering if you can circle back or we can circle back a little bit to what you were seeing in your community and you mentioned the asthma rates, the high, high pollution. Is there anything that jumps to your mind in terms of specific stories that you heard or when you were talking with parents, you know how, how they kind of connected with you on that point? You know, just love to kind of bring it to life a little bit.

MP: Sure I think something very important about environmental justice is that this field is very intersectional, right? So and there is a question here, right, about workers and organizers and how not to burnout, because at the beginning it was a very hard campaign like how we are going to start talking about that no one else talked before, right? Like like in. Right so like in Maricopa county, right? Like the movements were for immigration movement. Stop police brutality, jobs for that right? So how to bring this new field into this conversation? So I think that that was very important. But again, going back to the intersection, all right. I think to me by connecting with the health sector, right, that was very important. There is a one hospital in Phoenix, the Children’s Hospital. They have what they call asthma mobile, right? And they focus on and on, on areas where the Latino and Black community lives, right? And talking with these people that they are doing their job, their amazing job. They told me there were some schools that the kids have the rate on asthma. It was all the way to 80 percent, you know, so I was like, 10. Does you know so so I have to learn a little bit more like understanding of asthma and all that else, you know? So with that, I think we were able to put a sense of urgency into this, right? I love Michele story about what is happening in Florida, right? But I think something that we are very proud in Arizona, right? And this is with no competition or anything right? But we focus on the most. Well, details on the most vulnerable communities, right, like in our community, like with so Kai Wright and Phoenix union, right, those two districts, they are like probably 95% of brown and black kids, right? And we were able to accomplish that because we create a momentum, but also because the most important we create a sense of urgency. You know, when a lot of people is talking about climate change, right, they put a sense of urgency, but they put it like out there. If we talk about environmental justice, that our kids are getting sick and sicker every day, I think that’s when, when, when we push the needle, we, you know, and we put also fire into the people that need to do the work.

TT: Yeah I’m so glad that she was able to kind of capture this need and concern in the community. 80% asthma rate is shocking, and I’m trying to envision what you’re calling an asthma mobile like. Is that like a cart or something that drives around with just because the asthma rates are so high? That’s amazing. You know, this is such a, you know, important work. And Michelle and Masavi, it seems like it’s very personal for you to be able to dedicate so much time to this. Michelle, can I throw it to you? Like, do you have something that’s personally driving you to be part of this campaign or what kind of personally motivating for you about this work?

MD: Sure so I’m a lifelong Floridian, I’m a career public servant, I actually work for Homeland Security and I and I’m a mother of three, and I believe th