State officials announced more than $8.7 million in grants this week for Michigan school districts to purchase buses powered by clean diesel and propane, but environmental groups say the money would have been better spent on electric models.
The funding comes from Michigan’s $64.8 million share of settlement funds from the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Nearly a quarter of those funds will be used to replace old diesel-powered school buses with electric, clean diesel and propane models.
Under the settlement following Volkswagen’s 2015 admission that it installed emissions control defeat devices in certain models, states have leeway in designing programs to reduce transportation-sector emissions.
The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has set aside $4.2 million to cover up to 70 percent of the costs of 17 electric-powered school buses and chargers in seven districts around the state. The electric school bus pilot is being overseen by Zeeland Public Schools. Another $8.7 million is for clean diesel and propane buses.
Clean energy advocates say not only will electric school buses reduce air pollution around students, but also they will help lower the costs of electric school bus deployment elsewhere. Funding clean diesel and propane models — which produce less emissions than diesel models — slows that growth, said Margrethe Kearney, Michigan-based staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
“The settlement money is really a unique opportunity for EGLE to be a market catalyst in bringing down the costs of electric vehicles going forward,” Kearney said. “We are hopeful this is the last time we see money being allocated to clean diesel as opposed to electric vehicles.”
While $4.2 million will be used for 17 electric buses and charging equipment, $8.7 million will go toward 207 clean diesel and 103 propane models.
EGLE spokesperson Nick Assendelft says new diesel and propane buses will “reduce emissions, and mitigate oxides of nitrogen, greenhouse gases, and particulate matter.”
He added that the new clean diesel and propane buses will be in 10 counties with high ozone levels. West Michigan districts selected include Fennville Public Schools, Wayland Union Schools, Byron Center Public Schools, Fruitport Community Schools and Benton Harbor Area Schools.
“There are benefits under both [electric and clean diesel] programs for the environment and public health,” Assendelft said.
Kearney said questions remain about the actual level of emission reductions that clean diesel and propane models provide compared to old diesel models.
“Are we really solving a problem or just putting a Band-Aid on it? Even if we did get steeper emission reductions immediately, that’s not going to be true over a period of time,” she said. “The more we put in electric school buses now, the faster the transition will take place.”
The state has until October 2027 to spend its settlement funds, which is outlined in a beneficiary mitigation plan. The goal is to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions while emphasizing air pollution priority areas, reduce diesel emissions from school buses statewide and increase adoption of zero-emission vehicles.
The first round of funding — nearly $13 million — is directed toward school buses. Later rounds will involve local freight vehicles and then shuttle and transit buses.