How to Engage Stakeholders Around School Bus Electrification

Lessons from the first CESBA workshop

Published November 30 2022

On October 19th, members and partners of the Canadian Electric School Bus Alliance gathered for a workshop under the theme “Making an effective case for school bus electrification”. The event was an opportunity to discuss the benefits of electric school buses in Canada and to identify strategies to effectively communicate them to stakeholders (governments, school districts, etc.), drawing on the experience of the United States. Here is a summary of the key takeaways.

Why electrifying school transportation should be a priority in Canada

Today, we count over 50,000 school buses in circulation and more than 2 million students riding the bus daily across Canada, for a total of 792 million trips per year (1). The problem? These trips are still powered almost exclusively by diesel.

Diesel school buses represent a serious hazard for human health. Diesel exhaust emits toxic particles that affect many of our systems, particularly the respiratory system. It was estimated that, every year in Canada, diesel emissions cause 2.2 million acute respiratory symptom days, 170,000 asthma symptom days and 3,000 child acute bronchitis episodes (2).

According to the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment, children are more susceptible to the harmful impacts of diesel exhaust because their body is still developing, but also due to their greater exposure to air pollutants. In fact, children breathe more air per kilogram of body weight, while spending more time being active outdoors, in addition to being closer to the ground where diesel emissions are concentrated. Additionally, most schools and lower-income communities are located near high traffic roadways and air pollution.

Knowing that children are also at greater risk of other climate-related impacts, the benefits of transitioning towards electric school buses for children’s health across Canada would be manifold.

Electric school buses bring significant health and operational cost savings. According to a 2022 report from Pembina Institute, one electric school bus alone in British Columbia could save up to $11,800 in health costs from reduced air pollutants. In comparison to its diesel equivalent, it can also save fleet operators $166,000 in energy costs, with electricity being cheaper than diesel, and $36,000 in maintenance costs, as electric models have fewer parts to maintain.

Learning from the U.S. experience

The benefits of electrifying school transportation have been well understood by our neighbours to the south for some years now. While orders for electric school buses were first placed in 2014 in the United States, there are now 12,720 on the road or on the way across the country (4).

This progress is the result of the sustained advocacy efforts of many local and national organizations that have successfully mobilized the government over the years around the need to invest in school transportation electrification. Among the major victories achieved:

According to Carolina Chacon, Manager of the Alliance for Electric School Buses, whose mission is to foster an equitable energy transition in the American school bus fleet, certain strategies have been crucial in achieving these breakthroughs.

It is important to engage stakeholders with messages that are relevant to their interests. Narratives about clean air and children’s health have proven effective with policymakers, while at the local level, the focus should be on how electric school buses can help communities reduce local pollution and lower costs for schools.

With the electric school bus industry being relatively new and the technologies constantly evolving, there are many misconceptions about how they work. Therefore, when engaging stakeholders, it is important to inform organizations about the differences between electric school bus models and the likely benefits associated.

School districts need to know where to find funding for the purchase of electric school buses because of the price difference with diesel-powered models. Having a clear list of existing funding programs or being able to explain them can help them overcome this concern.

Easily accessible training for the workforce is critical to the transition of the school bus industry. Since manufacturers of electric school buses do not always provide sufficient training for drivers and mechanics, it is important to know their training and protection needs to ensure that they are comfortable with the transition and see the benefits.

With the growing popularity of electric buses, the propane industry is looking to position propane buses as a clean, green alternative to diesel. They are said to be more familiar and affordable and require less infrastructure than electric models. It is thus necessary to fight disinformation and greenwashing by informing stakeholders.

Successful messaging really centres on talking about cleaner air and healthier children and being able to point out the damaging effects of diesel [...], and to talk about how this also helps communities that are looking to reduce pollution. Not always necessarily talking about it in terms of climate, but talking about it in terms of the environment and the communities that we want to see, which across the board is something that folks support.

Valérie Tremblay

Valérie Tremblay

Advisor, Sustainable Mobility
Équiterre

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