DEQ staff pose in front of the state's first electric school bus

A Ride on the Electric School Bus
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians first in NC to put zero-emission school bus on the road

When Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 designated the Department of Environmental Quality as the lead agency to administer the state's share of the Volkswagen settlement mitigation trust funds, I knew we would be embarking on a journey to “do a lot of good."

Author: Mike Abraczinskas, Director, DAQ

When Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017 designated the Department of Environmental Quality as the lead agency to administer the state's share of the Volkswagen settlement mitigation trust funds, I knew we would be embarking on a journey to “do a lot of good." With nearly $98.7 million to enable transformative projects across the state, it was important to the Division of Air Quality that we prioritize projects with the greatest health and environmental benefits.

At the time, we talked a lot about replacing heavy-duty vehicles, like school buses, with cleaner electric vehicles. I remember saying to our team: “When that first electric school bus is put into service, we’re going to be there to celebrate the first mile of that first electric school bus.”

Last week, that dream became reality. North Carolina's first electric school bus was put into service by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on March 15. I was honored to join Gov. Cooper, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Principal Chief Richard Sneed at the ribbon cutting and to ride along in the bus with DAQ staff.

A selfie of DAQ staff riding in the first electric school bus
Division of Air Quality Director Mike Abraczinskas, front, takes a selfie on the school bus with Sheila Blanchard, middle, and Brian Phillips, rear. 

The event was the culmination of years of hard work. Using our VW settlement funds, DAQ provided the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians with a grant that fully covered the cost of the bus, which replaced a 1998 diesel bus. This was just the first of six electric school buses DAQ is funding with the first phase of our VW settlement funds.

Why does this matter?

Each diesel school bus we replace with an electric bus significantly reduces local emissions. Just this one replacement will eliminate each year:

  • A quarter of a ton of Nitrogen Oxide emissions
  • Additional particulate and hydrocarbon emissions, and
  • Over 23 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

And this old diesel school bus could have had as many as nine more years in its expected life. These reductions cut greenhouse gas emissions and will reduce haze that can obscure the beautiful views of North Carolina’s mountains. But most importantly, these emission reductions provide local health benefits, especially to those most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, like young children and people with chronic respiratory conditions.

“One electric school bus eliminates more than 23 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year and provides health benefits, especially for children,” said NC DEQ Secretary Elizabeth S. Biser. “The health and environmental benefits are the reason we are prioritizing electric school bus replacements with the remainder of the Volkswagen Settlement funding.”

When we received the grant application for this project from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, it was clear, that the health benefits – and specifically health benefits to school children – was their central focus. 

That’s not surprising. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has had a long commitment to protecting and improving human health and air quality. They are active members of the Regional Clean Air Campaign and the Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition. They collaborate with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park air quality and education staff to share information and educate park and tribal land visitors. And, they are a great partner of the Division of Air Quality on monitoring air quality in the tribal land.

We greatly value these partnerships, and all our federal, state, local, tribal and private partners in improving air quality significantly over the past two decades.

Governor Roy Cooper during the electric school bus event
Gov. Roy Cooper, beside Principal Chief Richard Sneed, signs a commemorative certificate during the electric school bus ribbon cutting.

This first electric school bus is just one of several success stories from Phase 1 of our Volkswagen settlement program. But our work to “do a lot of good” isn’t over.

Earlier this month, we announced we are accepting applications for the next round of school bus projects under the VW settlement. We have another $27 million available to replace old, dirty diesel school buses, and we have a goal of directing at least 50% of those funds toward electrification projects.

Additionally, we have about $40 million more for programs that will upgrade or replace diesel transit buses and heavy-duty equipment, provide critical high-speed electric vehicle charging infrastructure to fill gaps on priority corridors, and provide electric charging infrastructure at places we work, live, and play. Just this Monday, we released the latest request for proposals, offering as much as $1 million in rebates for publicly accessible light-duty electric vehicle chargers.

A graphic showing some of the current Volkswagen Settlement funding opportunities
Several Volkswagen Settlement funding opportunities are accepting applications now, with more scheduled to go live in the coming weeks.

For this round of funding, DEQ is taking additional steps to ensure grants are distributed equitably across the state. We are providing extra outreach and support to 37 historically under-resourced counties, and our knowledgeable staff is ready to answer any questions organizations may have about their applications.

I want to thank the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for their commitment to this project. And I want to thank staff at DAQ -- including Brian Phillips, the leader of our VW program activities, and Sheila Blanchard who serves as the school bus project manager.

Together, we can transform our transportation network into a cleaner, healthier system for the benefit of all North Carolina.

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