South metro group pushes for electric school buses

Erin Adler, Emma Nelson, Star Tribune
·3 min read

A group of south metro residents is trying to get the word out about the benefits of electric school buses in hopes that the vehicles will eventually serve students across Minnesota.

MN350 South Metro, a local arm of a larger environmental advocacy group, is holding an online forum Tuesday to share information about battery-powered buses in Minnesota with anyone who's interested, from parents to school board members.

"We thought that this is something that the community should be engaged with," said Dan Trajano, an MN350 South Metro member. "I think the timing is right."

The south metro is home to the state's first electric school bus, which hit the road in late 2017. The wind-powered bus, purchased through a partnership between Dakota Electric Association, Schmitty & Sons and Great River Energy, continues to serve the Lakeville school district.

Joe Miller, Dakota County Electric public relations director, said there haven't been discussions about expanding the Lakeville pilot beyond the one bus. The goal, he said, was to raise awareness.

"It's been successful," he said, "because now we have others talking about doing it."

Electric school buses are gaining traction in Minnesota and nationwide, often with financial incentives — they cost up to three times more than traditional diesel buses, and those run upward of $100,000. But the operations and maintenance costs for electric buses are about $12,000 less each year, according to Great River Energy, which has tracked the performance of the Lakeville bus over time.

Replacing diesel buses with electric ones also reduces greenhouse gas emissions — a long-term goal for the state. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), replacing one diesel bus is the equivalent of getting six passenger vehicles off the road.

Diesel exhaust from traditional school buses can have a negative impact on human health, particularly among children. A 2019 study out of Georgia State University found that retrofitting buses helped improve respiratory health — and children who rode retrofitted buses to school even did better on academic tests.

Trajano, who has two grown children, said he thinks making the switch is possible now because of the attention electric buses are getting in Minnesota and nationally.

President Joe Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan aims to electrify at least a fifth of school buses. And in Minnesota, to fund electric school buses statewide, the MPCA is using money from the state's portion of the settlement reached with Volkswagen over the German car company's violation of emissions standards.

Trajano said he's had little success getting south metro school boards to complete surveys sharing their thoughts on electric buses. Getting school districts on board without outside financial support may be difficult because of the expense, Trajano said, something he learned after talking with a south metro superintendent.

And there are other potential drawbacks. According to the Minneapolis Public Schools website, the district has explored electric buses but is opting instead for low-emission propane power due to concerns, including the costs of vehicles and charging stations, vehicle range, the impact of cold weather on batteries, additional driver requirements and maintenance needs.

Ultimately, Trajano said, he hopes to inform residents about electric buses. They could talk with local school boards that might then pledge to work toward electric bus fleets.

"It's absolutely doable," Trajano said, "and for me it's necessary because it's a children's health issue and a climate health issue."

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781

Emma Nelson • 612-673-4509