Pellston electric school bus

Tiny rural school district Pellston out front on clean energy transition

June 22, 2023 |

Just 30 minutes north of Petoskey, in northern Michigan, Pellston Public Schools (PPS) is  pushing forward in clean energy with the acquisition of four electric school buses thanks to a federally funded program. By replacing traditional diesel-powered buses with electric ones, the district is reducing operating costs, creating educational opportunities, promoting long-term energy affordability, and reducing a host of air pollutants, including CO2 and toxins, that result from fossil fuel combustion. 
The buses are the latest step in Pellston’s clean energy journey. The district has been investing in clean energy initiatives since 2021, when it installed a solar array, and school leaders are now making plans for a larger solar energy system on the middle school and high school roof. 
To purchase the buses, Superintendent Stephen Seelye discovered an Environmental Protection Agency grant opportunity through the Michigan Department of Education. Pellston was included in a pre-approved list of schools for the Clean School Bus Program, as the community checked the boxes in prioritized areas, such as having a high poverty level, being a rural community, and having a significant population of Indigenous students. Despite initial skepticism, Superintendent Seelye and the school board embraced their forward-thinking approach and cultivated the opportunity to implement electric school buses. Upon hearing the news that they had successfully secured the grant, Superintendent Seelye told me he pinched himself and truly “couldn’t believe it.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law allocated up to $5 billion to replace diesel school buses, and there’s $400 million currently up for grabs through the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program. This historic opportunity allows school districts to use federal funds to purchase electric buses and charging infrastructure, bringing health, air quality, and climate benefits to students and communities. Following the success of the first round, where almost $1 billion was awarded to school districts nationwide, the EPA has now opened the second round of funding through a competitive grant process. Discover everything you need to know and how to apply for this transformative opportunity HERE.

This investment in renewable energy infrastructure will result in estimated savings of $60,000 per year in maintenance and fuel costs, allowing the district to allocate those funds to education, additional infrastructure upgrades, and other school improvements. The buses, purchased from Lion Electric, are equipped with heated seats, back-up cameras, and 8-year warranties on both the buses and batteries. Each bus has a battery range of 120 miles, which is more than sufficient for the bus routes that average 40 to 50 miles.
Because of the federal grant, the district only paid a total of $20,000 out-of-pocket for the buses—and only because the garage doors had to be widened. The new buses are 6 inches wider than traditional buses, with wider isles and taller ceilings. Now Superintendent Seelye can actually stand upright in the buses, without having to bend his neck! 
Federal dollars also covered $20,000 for each bus to purchase chargers and install necessary infrastructure. Pellston Public Schools opted for type 3 fast chargers, enabling a full charge of a drained battery in approximately 6 hours. The district even had a new power pole set. Consumers Energy installed it through the PowerMIFleet program at no cost.
Beyond cost and energy savings, the district aims to inspire students to be forward-thinkers and recognize the potential of clean and renewable energy options. Superintendent Seelye believes it is crucial for students to understand solar arrays, electric buses, charging stations—and savvy cost savings—as part of their future. The positive response from drivers, students, teachers, and parents further emphasizes the success of the electric buses. I’ve been told the quietness of the buses particularly appeals to the younger students.
In addition to the financial and educational benefits, Pellston Public Schools plans to implement a vehicle-to-grid system using the stored energy from the bus batteries to power the schools during summer days, resulting in further cost savings. On top of that, the district is pursuing an agrivoltaics garden near the school’s existing solar array to enhance the learning environment and promote sustainable agriculture and renewable energy education.
Through forward-thinking leadership, community collaboration, and the dedication of educators and students, Pellston Public Schools exemplifies a commitment to a clean energy future and innovative learning environments. Their story showcases the transformative power of clean energy adoption and its positive impact on education and the environment.
I am excited about the work being done by Pellston Public Schools in the field of clean energy adoption. The district’s initiatives not only serve as a model for other schools to learn from but also debunk skepticisms surrounding the feasibility of electric vehicles in rural communities. By demonstrating careful planning and a deep understanding of the local needs, Pellston has shown that these challenges can be overcome.
At Groundwork, we celebrate the forward-thinking approach of Pellston Public Schools and commend the dedication to implementing prudent clean energy strategies. The district’s work serves as a testament to the transformative power of clean energy adoption, highlighting its potential to create sustainable and resilient communities. We look forward to continuing our relationship with Pellston and supporting ongoing efforts to lead the way in clean energy adoption in Michigan.Groundwork logo for story end

Liv Rollinger, FoodCorps

Liv Rollinger is Groundwork’s Climate and Clean Energy Specialist.