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Northwestern University moves Evanston closer to an electric bus

With help from Northwestern University students, the nationwide Head Start early childhood education program will acquire its first electric school buses and charging infrastructure in Evanston. Compass Transportation, which provides local transit to the Evanston program, received part of a $4.2 million grant from Governor J.B. Pritzker’s Driving a Cleaner Illinois Program as the result of a proposal generated by student sustainability fellows.

This marks the first U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Head Start program in the country — which promotes school readiness for young children from low-income families — to be served by an electric bus, a move that could translate to significant health benefits for communities exposed to higher levels of air pollution. The greater Chicago area is one of the top 16 metro regions that would most benefit from electric vehicles. 

According to the American Lung Association, transitioning to electric buses by 2050 could prevent 6,300 premature deaths; 93,000 asthma attacks; and 416,000 lost workdays, especially in underserved communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by pollution.

“We are thrilled that our students were able to facilitate positive change in the community while gaining hands-on experiential learning,” said Holly Benz, who oversees the fellows and serves as the director of the Master of Science in Energy and Sustainability (MSES) program at Northwestern. “The result is a win for the students and for local residents.” 

The Northwestern Student Sustainability Fellowship began last summer when the University entered a five-year partnership with Ameresco, Inc., a leading clean technology integrator specializing in efficiency and renewable energy. The partnership guaranteed funding toward an annual program that provides a tuition stipend for 16 students each year. Initiatives like the partnership and fellowships have positioned Northwestern as a leader in sustainability and green energy, exemplified through several EPA ENERGY STAR Sustained Excellence Awards, an exemplary collegiate sustainability rating, and a new award, granted today through the Department of Education.

Pinky Friedman, Director of Compass Transportation, said Northwestern students were integral to securing the grant. “I knew about these grants and had previously attempted to win one,” Friedman said. “But the students really put things over the top by doing a lot of the legwork. They reached out to bus manufacturers. They reached out to the utility company. They reached out to other districts.”

The cross-disciplinary graduate team — coming from backgrounds ranging from oil to chemical manufacturing — showed that electric buses also hold immense opportunity through excess energy stored in batteries that can be deployed for other uses. 

“Historically, Compass just had a diesel school bus that would just sit there all day,” said J.J. Sarsfield, a sustainability fellow and MSES student. “School buses are the optimal vehicles to do vehicle-to-grid because they have bigger batteries, are used so infrequently and as more people adopt them, they can generate more revenue.”

Northwestern University moves Evanston closer to an electric bus