Plugging Into Electric School Buses: Q&A with Gilbert Rosas

Every year, millions of students begin their mornings inhaling harmful carcinogens from diesel-powered school buses. Data has shown that children are more susceptible to air pollution than healthy adults because their respiratory systems are still developing. Although newer school buses are designed to meet EPA standards, many schools in lower-income communities struggle with buying these newer models.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced a $5 billion fund for schools to purchase clean bus fleets and lessen reliance on diesel fuel as part of their new Clean School Bus Energy Program. By tapping into this funding, districts can replace old buses, reduce maintenance costs, improve air quality and commit to sustainability goals.

We recently spoke with Gilbert Rosas, Director II of Sustainability & Adaptation at Modesto City Schools. Gilbert serves on the World Resource Institute’s Electric School Bus Advisory Council and has gained national attention with two of the fastest electric bus deployments in California’s history. In this interview, Gilbert discusses the benefits of going electric and offers resources for schools to transition their bus fleets!

Tell me about your role at the Modesto County Unified School District. What are your responsibilities in that position? 

I have been the Director of Sustainability & Adaptation for Modesto since this spring. The biggest priority I am working on is implementing electric school buses. Beginning in June, we broke ground on adding the infrastructure for this project. Within two months, we completed the installation of solar panels, conduits, and other components needed to implement electric buses. Implementing electric school buses for Modesto is coming together in a matter of months for a project that typically takes anywhere from two to two-and-a-half years.

Part of what helped this project become a reality in such a short time was a prior experience doing the same thing for another district. I helped implement electric school buses for the Stockton Unified School District, the 15th largest in the state with 40,000 students. Last year, we received approval on May 6 for a $4.9 million grant from California Air Resources Board as part of their clean mobility in schools pilot program. By June, PG&E had come out for inspections. In October, we broke ground in implementing the infrastructure and finished by the end of the year. The buses began arriving in March. In total, the project took 11 months for Stockton.

The goal is to transition to full electric fleets for Stockton and Modesto Unified School Districts. We converted about 12% of Stockton’s fleet to electric buses and half of Modesto’s fleet. By utilizing the same partners to implement electric buses for Stockton Unified School District – Schneider Electric and Mobility House – we could lean on the same team to beat our own record. I hope within the next two-and-a-half years, both district fleets will be 100% electric.

What started your passion for advocating for the transition to electric buses?

Stockton and Modesto are very similar in demographics. In these rural communities of color, school bus rides are longer, so children are more affected by the emissions from traditional diesel buses. Affluent upper-class students have more options for transportation to school, where they won’t be affected by the same emissions as students who depend on school buses.

For disadvantaged communities, electric school buses are a symbol of hope and a means for change. Electric school buses offer an opportunity to invest in positively impacting the lives of youth in your community. Working to electrify school buses was how I was introduced to social justice issues, and it has opened my eyes to how we can significantly impact people’s lives.

How does the transition to electric buses for schools help bring about environmental justice for disadvantaged communities? 

Thanks to the folks at Schneider Electric, we’ve also built big shade canopies, which work as outdoor classrooms called Sustainable Outdoor Learning Environments (SOLE), at the school sites when we were installing the infrastructure for the electric buses. By the fall of next year, Modesto Unified School District will be the first in the nation to have six outdoor learning environments. With these SOLEs, we can turn the technical components of electric school buses – solar panels, conduits, etc. – into a learning opportunity for students and also explore the impact of greenhouse gases that made us switch in the first place.

We have also utilized the many partners who helped in this project to expose students to green careers. By collaborating with the businesses responsible for different components of the electric school bus infrastructure, our Continuing Technical Education Department is building our network of community-based partners who students can visit on Green Career Field Trips and job shadow to learn more about what they do.

The startup costs for an electric bus fleet are high, but it averages to a five-year payback in return; you get offset campus bills, cleaner air, healthier students, and unique opportunities to engage students in environmental education and expose them to green careers.

What resources exist for schools to transition to electric school buses? 

The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced unprecedented federal funding for their 2022 Clean School Bus Program. The $5 billion funding was created to help school districts replace existing buses with zero-emission and low-emission models. Also, look for state and federal resources; for schools in California, that would be organizations like the California Energy Commission and the California Air Resources Board.

For any schools looking to transition their bus fleets to electric, a few things that I would recommend are checking out the World Resources Institute (WRI), attending seminars (School Transportation News hosts seminars that would be good to attend), and checking out the Sustainability & Adaptation webpage on the Modesto County Unified School District website. On the Sustainability & Adaptation webpage, people can check out case studies and find more resources from WRI.

At the end of the day, research and do your homework to find partners you can trust.

In general, how can school districts leverage facilities to advance environmental education? 

Firstly, staying on top of your campus’ sustainability efforts and exploring new ways to implement renewable energy can open up several educational opportunities. For example, at Modesto, we are working with Mean Green Mowers to provide maintenance with battery-powered equipment to avoid using diesel-powered landscaping equipment. Schools with solid recycling programs, solar-powered lighting, renewable heating and A/C, and school gardening programs all have more unique and powerful opportunities to leverage those initiatives toward advancing environmental education. School districts must be stewards of their own money and invest it in equitable ways for youth and the environment.

What challenges may schools face in switching to all-electric school buses, and how can they work to address them? 

I worked so quickly in getting Stockton and Modesto transitioned to electric buses, not for a trophy or anything, but to minimize costs. The longer the process takes, the more costs begin to escalate. The biggest challenge is getting all of the pieces to transition promptly. From researching funding opportunities to grant writing, finding suppliers, and working with contractors, electrifying bus fleets is time-consuming.

I’m excited that students can be involved with this initiative. School districts can spend money on many things, but improving our children’s air quality also improves their communities. Electric school buses are the right idea at the right time, right now. I encourage any school district to look at what we’ve done, take notes, ask questions and reach out. We’ll help in any way we can!