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E-school buses can help Ontario's economy, health, environment: report

Pollution Probe strategy stresses advantages of Ontario school bus fleets going electric

Pollution Probe's report, An Electric School Bus Strategy for Ontario.

Cleaner air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions and healthier people would be the benefits of Ontario’s school boards switching to electric school buses, a report from Pollution Probe argues.

An Electric School Bus Strategy for Ontario, written by the Toronto-based environmental non-profit with the help of the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and Environment and environmental consultancy Delphi Group, outlines the benefits of electric school buses and how the province can foster the industry in Ontario.

“We found that given Ontario’s low-carbon electrical grid, electric school buses provide a particularly promising opportunity to address the climate change impact associated with fossil fuel-based school buses,” Cedric Smith, Pollution Probe’s director of transportation, said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada.

It is a tall task. Virtually all of the almost 21,000 school buses in Ontario run on gasoline or diesel, emitting 307,705 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent and 203,000 kilograms of nitrogen oxides.

But Ontario is well-positioned to lead adoption of electric school buses, and policies can jolt electric bus adoption rates, Pollution Probe states.

Health and climate

The fumes from diesel-powered school buses, including nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone, are a detriment to human health. Citing Health Canada, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization, the report writes “diesel exhaust is a human carcinogen,” linked to the harming of respiratory, cardiovascular, nervous, immunological and reproductive systems.

“The diesel engines that still power most school buses emit harmful air pollutants, which pose significant threats to health and well-being,” Smith said, affecting developing children, bus drivers, school personnel and neighbourhoods, with a disproportionate effect on marginalized communities.

Over 300,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year in Ontario come from school buses, Pollution Probe found, which also adds to the problem of global warming.

Electric school buses could help solve both issues. They do not emit harmful pollutants nor greenhouse gases. One calculation cited by the report found switching to all-electric school buses would provide over $7.2 million in health benefits every year.

Pathways to electrifying school bus fleets by 2042, laid out by Pollution Probe, are estimated to save between 545,000 tonnes and 1,445,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

Electrifying an economic opportunity for Ontario

“The electrification of the province’s bus fleet could represent significant economic opportunity in areas including electric vehicle and battery manufacturing, electricity generation and distribution, and the provision of charging equipment,” Smith said.

Ontario can lead on electric school bus manufacturing because of factors like access to battery minerals, growing battery recycling capacity, automotive research programs, an existing pool of skilled labour and well-established distribution channels to North America and the world, on top of investments totalling in the billions of dollars.

Ontario is the second-largest vehicle-producing jurisdiction in North America by volume. Battery factories from Stellantis and LG, Umicore, and Electrovaya Inc. are being established in Ontario, alongside battery recycling facilities from companies like Li-Cycle and Stelco.

If Ontario can capture a growing share of the burgeoning electric vehicle market, the province is well positioned to benefit from jobs and economic growth, Smith said.

Policies and prescriptions for electric school buses

To increase the number of electric school buses, Pollution Probe recommends a series of initiatives and government policies.

One is to increase the Ministry of Education's school transportation budget to launch electric school bus pilot programs in Ontario. A key issue is the effect Canadian winters would have on battery performance, so trials to examine the performance of electric school bus fleets would be crucial.

School bus companies and transportation groups are urged to commence pilots to study technological and regulatory barriers.

The Ontario government can incorporate electric school bus targets into provincial policies and programs, and enact a policy to hasten the retirement of older diesel school buses, replacing them with electric models. Maintenance could be subsidized or made free, the report states.

Electric school buses are pricier than their diesel counterparts by an average of $260,000 per bus, but Smith said with the manufacturing capacity increasing and economies of scale, the up-front cost will be reduced.

With policies like eliminating the PST for new purchases, grant funding for procurement that is stackable with federal incentives, low-interest financing, and grants for up to 50 per cent of charging infrastructure costs, the barrier for entry could be shrunk even further.

Critical to these steps is providing more funding and research, education on the benefits of electric school buses, and ensuring data from the pilots is shared.

Ontario can learn from example, Smith said. For example, Quebec plans to electrify 65 per cent of its school bus fleet by 2030, spending $250 million on new purchases.

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