The ‘Electric Bus Evangelist’ shows school districts the path to cleaner and healthier buses

Electric buses will clean our air, protect our kids’ health

John Clements, the “Electric Bus Evangelist.” Image Credit: John Clements

John Clements is no longer the director of transportation at Kings Canyon Unified School District, but he is still deeply involved in school transportation. He has stayed involved with a singular mission: to help speed up the adoption of electric school buses. In fact, John now signs his emails with his self-appointed title, “the Electric Bus Evangelist.”

The Kings Canyon Unified School District Transportation Department serves twenty schools outside of Fresno, California — covering an area of 599 square miles with a fleet that travels over 1 million miles annually. In 2014, thanks to John’s hard work during his tenure as transportation director, Kings Canyon became the first school district in the country to use all-electric school buses to get students to class.

You probably don’t need to be told that the black cloud of smoke behind a diesel school bus isn’t good for our kids. It’s full of cancer-causing toxins and particulate matter that contribute to lung disease and worsen asthma. There is no safe level of exposure to diesel exhaust for children, but we still put hundreds of thousands of them on diesel school buses every weekday. Whether boarding the bus, on the bus, or on the road near the bus, kids are exposed to high levels of these dangerous diesel toxins.

There is a better option: the all-electric bus.

Electric buses have zero tailpipe emissions, meaning they eliminate exposure to the localized toxic pollution created by diesel buses. They are also the most energy-efficient buses (no matter the source of electricity), and will continue to become cleaner as we integrate more renewable energy into our electrical grid.

Even with all we know about the negative health effects, 95 percent of American school buses still run on diesel. Many school districts say it’s too expensive to switch to electric buses, but that argument wasn’t good enough for John. They’re correct that based solely on sticker price, electric school buses cost more than diesel buses. An electric school bus costs around $230,000, while a diesel school bus costs around $110,000. But because of lower fuel and maintenance costs, electric buses save school districts money every year. Over its lifetime, an electric school bus will save around $170,000. These savings mean that total lifetime costs of electric buses are often lower than total lifetime costs of diesel buses. School districts can also take advantage of federal and state grant programs, as well as utility investments and incentives to lower the cost of an electric bus, meaning the lifetime savings will be even greater.

John Clements knows this better than anybody. He saw the value of electric buses early on. The health and environmental benefits were so great that he was determined to get electric buses for his school district, no matter the cost. Kings Canyon initially ordered two electric buses, and then within a few months, ordered two more. These first four electric buses were funded through a variety of grant and incentive programs, including through the California Energy Commission, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and the local air quality management district. Kings Canyon has also been in talks with the local utility to implement “vehicle-to-grid” technology, which will allow for beneficial rate plans and even greater cost savings. Basically, John Clements and the Kings Canyon transportation department looked for every available opportunity to help make the switch to electric buses and sought them out, with hugely successful results.

Though now retired, John is still out advocating for electric buses. Recently, he spent a few days in San Francisco at the Global Climate Action Summit, driving other attendees around in none other than an electric school bus. According to John, the bus handled the winding, hilly streets of the city beautifully.

John at the Global Climate Action Summit with the electric school bus he drove around San Francisco. Image Credit: John Clements

Since John and Kings Canyon took that first leap, several other school districts have followed their lead, many in California, but also in New York, Massachusetts and Minnesota. Electric school buses may have higher purchase prices, but the health and environmental benefits they bring to school districts are worth the extra money. And it doesn’t hurt that funding and incentive programs, as well as lower operating costs, mean that they can save money over time.

School districts around the country should follow John’s lead and put the health of our kids above all else. During his time as the head of King Canyon’s transportation department, he showed the rest of the country that once you make a commitment to switching to cleaner, healthier buses, any obstacle can be overcome.

U.S. PIRG recently published a new report that lays out the options school districts have to fund and finance electric buses.