Electric school buses poised to roll into the U.P.

New electric school buses are poised to roll out in three U.P. school districts sometime this year, part of the federal Clean School Bus Rebate Program. 

The U.P. schools – L’Anse Area Schools, Bessemer Area Schools and the Ojibwe Charter School in Brimley – are among 25 Michigan school districts slated to receive 138 new electric school buses as part of the program. Lower peninsula districts include Pellston Public Schools, Cassopolis Public Schools and Pentwater Public School District. 

Nationally, 99 percent of the school districts chosen for grants across the country serve low-income, rural, and tribal students.

The Clean School Bus grants support Michigan’s first large influx of electric school buses since September 2019, when the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy awarded $4.2 million to support the purchase of 17 electric school buses and charging stations to serve seven Michigan school districts, replacing 17 polluting diesel buses.

"This is a wonderful opportunity for our district and we are blessed to be chosen to receive these buses,” says Daniel W. Niemi, superintendent of the Bessemer Area School District in the far western end of the U.P. Two buses are expected by late spring. 

The goal of the federal program is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money for school districts and produce cleaner air by replacing older, heavily polluting school buses with electric options.

The EPA’s five-year, $5 billion program, funded through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, awarded nearly $1 billion in 2022 to support the purchase of more than 2,400 clean-powered buses nationwide with grants of up to $375,000 per bus, plus $20,000 for charging infrastructure. 

In all, Michigan school districts will receive over $54 million in rebates to help transition to electric buses.

The full-size battery-powered buses move all of Michigan closer to the future envisioned in the MI Healthy Climate Plan, Michigan’s roadmap to a prosperous, carbon-neutral economy by 2050, says Jeff Johnston, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

The plan calls for the infrastructure necessary to support 2 million electric vehicles on Michigan roads by 2030, along with a 15 percent annual increase in access to clean transportation including public transit. Public school buses collectively form America’s largest transit system.

The Environmental Protection Agency solicited rebate applications for $500 million through the 2022 Clean School Bus Rebates, which prioritize low-income, rural, and Tribal communities.

Johnston says rural districts were prioritized in this round of grant awards because of the impact the change could have in large swaths of the state.

“In rural districts with a large proportion of students bused from over a large geographical area, replacing diesel buses with electric buses can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality,” he says. “Diesel air pollution is linked to asthma and other conditions that harm students’ health. Phasing out these diesel engines will ensure cleaner air for students, bus drivers, and school staff working near bus loading areas, and out in the communities these buses drive through each day.” 

In addition, he notes, “the grants also free up rural districts’ limited resources for other school expenses.” The electric buses also are being tested against the frigid and inclement weather in places like the U.P. 

Overlooking Keweenaw Bay, L’Anse Area Schools may not get delivery of its electric buses until fall — but the school district’s 600 students and staff are every bit as excited by the potential of green power.

Superintendent Susan Tollefson says the new buses will mean cost savings for the district as well as the opportunity for kids to enjoy brand new buses instead of the usual hand-me-downs.

With the new buses, the district will help manufacturers test the vehicles under cold rural conditions. The cold is a concern because of the battery power that is sucked by heating the vehicles. 

“They want to be how they function in a real application setting,” the superintendent says. “We're kind of on the cutting edge of getting that information to the manufacturers so they can make improvements. They want to know how they function in a real application setting. So, it's just exciting.”

The L’Anse district has 10 buses, used for six daily bus routes and sports team runs over the district’s 700 square miles. The district is getting $790,000 for two electric buses.

The district always has two extra buses on hand, so hypothetically, if the electric buses failed the challenge of a couple of weeks of below-zero temperatures, the extras could be subbed in. That’s not expected to happen, however.

“Before applying for the grant, I did a little research and I found a district in Alaska that had been using electric buses  … so some have had success with them in the colder climates, “ she says. 

In the Bessemer Area School District in Gogebic County, two electric school buses will replace two of its diesel buses; charging ports also will be supplied. The school district, home to 378 students, is getting $790,000.

The EPA grant also allocated $20,000 per charging station.

L'Anse Area Schools is working with the Holland Bus Company to purchase the buses and WPPI Energy is assisting the school district with planning for a charging station.

The new electric buses come with an eight-year warranty on the batteries and an eight-year warranty on the motors. The exterior materials of these buses are made from a rust-free material. 

The Ojibwe Charter School in Brimley is getting $395,000 for one electric bus. 

Located in the eastern U.P., the charter school serves 150 students in grade K-12. The new bus will join the district’s two existing buses, says Nadine Leblanc , administrative assistant at the school.

“We’re looking forward to participating,” she says. 

The EPA’s next $1 billion annual round of funding, for fiscal year 2023, will launch soon with an ambitious grant competition. The agency encourages participation by school districts that were not selected in the first round or did not apply for this funding cycle.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.