How a small East Texas school district replaced its gas-guzzling buses with an all-electric fleet

School busses are parked at the Austin Independent School District bus center on July 10, 2020 in Sunset Valley. The Texas Electric School Bus Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for electric school buses, estimates that somewhere between 13 and 20 electric school buses are on the road in Texas and approximately 170 additional buses have been ordered. (Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune, Allie Goulding/The Texas Tribune)

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Keith Kimbrough is the first to admit that electric school buses were not an easy sell in the tiny, unincorporated town of Martinsville.

In Martinsville, which sits just outside of Nacogdoches in the Piney Woods of East Texas, pickup trucks are the vehicle of choice, and oil field jobs are prevalent.

Diesel exhaust is not top of mind.

And yet the modest school district here has become the first in the state to entirely replace its diesel school bus fleet with no-emission electric buses. Martinsville ISD applied for and received a $1.6 million grant last year from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Its Clean School Bus Program — funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021 — is investing $5 billion to replace existing school buses with zero-emission and low-emission models across the country, especially in school districts that serve rural areas or low-income students.

Martinsville ISD began running their morning and afternoon routes with the new buses in late October.

“We are not who you would expect to be the first,” said Kimbrough, the principal at Martinsville ISD, which serves about 340 students, all on one campus. “We had a lot of people telling us it wasn’t going to work, but we decided we were going to go for it.”

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Diesel exhausts create greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The emissions are also linked to physical health issues such as asthma and heart disease, and children are especially at risk because their airways are not fully developed and have a smaller diameter than those of adults.

According to the EPA, exposure to diesel pollution from transportation contributes to 3,700 heart attacks, 8,800 deaths and $100 billion health costs each year. Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen and can even impact students’ academic performance, research has found. Tailpipe exhaust often dirties the air inside buses, and idling buses – especially during loading and unloading – can pollute the air inside schools.

So far, the Clean School Bus Program has awarded about $8.8 million to some 376 school districts, including 11 in Texas. The application window for another round of funding to be awarded next year is open.

Martinsville, which operates four buses across the whole district, replaced its entire fleet of old diesel buses, whereas other districts only replaced part of their fleets or have not received all of their new buses yet. The Texas Electric School Bus Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for electric school buses, estimates that somewhere between 13 and 20 electric school buses are on the road in Texas and approximately 170 additional buses have been ordered.

Yamilet Garcia, an eighth grader in Martinsville ISD, rides the bus to and from school every day. She said she’s enjoyed the quieter and cleaner ride on the electric buses.

“When we were waiting to get on the bus, it used to smell weird with the old buses,” Garcia said. “With these buses, it’s been a lot quieter and a lot nicer.”

Kimbrough learned about the federal grant program while shopping for a new school bus last year. He faced some skepticism from residents who questioned whether the grant would fully fund the district, but he managed to get the administration on board by mapping out the possible cost savings of switching to electric buses. Kimbrough calculated that the electricity costs of running the buses would be about 70% less than the diesel fuel costs. He anticipates added savings in maintenance costs.

“What I can save in diesel and maintenance, I can almost hire a teacher, or an instructional aid, or give some other benefit to my teachers,” Kimbraugh said. “The cost savings are going to let me better support my kids.”

The up-front costs of electric buses can be cost prohibitive for many districts. A single electric bus costs $400,000, about three to four times more than a diesel bus. The EPA grant fully funded Martinsville ISD’s four new buses along with the charging infrastructure. An electric bus can travel about 100 miles before it needs to be recharged. Kimbrough said his buses run about 60 miles a day, so he is able to just charge them overnight. The district will continue to use diesel buses for longer field trips and sporting events.

Texas, which has the largest school bus fleet in the country with about 50,000 school buses, also has its own program to reduce exposure to diesel exhaust. The Texas Clean School Bus Program was established by lawmakers in 2005. The program is run by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and offers grants to retrofit older diesel buses with equipment that reduces emissions, or to replace pre-2007 model buses with new buses of any fuel type, including electric buses. TCEQ has so far awarded more than $76 million in grants to replace or retrofit more than 8,000 buses in Texas, an agency spokesperson said.

The state also has about $87 million available for electric vehicles through the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Program. That funding stems from a legal settlement between the Department of Justice and Volkswagen, who had allegedly violated the Clean Air Act by cheating on federal emissions tests.

Public health and climate advocates are hopeful that more Texas school districts will adopt electric buses. But they say it will likely be a slow process.

“It’s not something that is on a lot of people’s radars,” said Jessica Keithan, who founded the Texas Electric School Bus Project. “The yellow school bus is a symbol of child innocence and the American Dream. It’s hard to imagine it having such a dark side.”

During the regular legislative session this year, state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, carried a bill to support school districts in acquiring electric buses and solar panels. The bill stalled in committee, which Menéndez attributed to the partisan politics around renewable energy.

“There seems to be a widespread belief that renewable energy somehow played a large role in the failure of our grid,” Menéndez said. “The reality is that natural gas failed at a higher rate than renewables.”

Menéndez suggested that when the electric school buses are not running, they could be plugged into the grid to provide an alternative source of renewable power. And he said they’d ultimately bring about huge cost savings for school districts like Northside ISD, a San Antonio district that, Menendez said, spends $3.9 million per year on school bus gas costs alone.

Menéndez said he would attempt to bring a bill again to support electric school buses.