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Greenwashing 101: School District Touts Electric Vehicles

Replacing all 71 buses would cost $6,035,000. Maybe later…

Replacing all 71 buses would cost $6,035,000. Maybe later…

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There are two things you need to know. One is, the environmental organization 350.org was established on the idea that if we went over 350 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere, climate change would be irreversible. They determined 350-ppm signaled a tipping point which would trigger horrific events of biblical proportions. For years now, the CO2 count has been routinely above 410 ppm and this doesn’t include the impacts of the far more damaging gases like methane. Currently, about 5 million people die every year as a result of climate change.

The second thing is the term, “greenwashing.” Investopedia defines “greenwashing” as, “…the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sound.” So in the first of my articles on greenwashing I’m going to focus on the schools. 

I became interested in the greenwashing by our government, their many developer friends, and the schools during the pandemic when they started large refurbishing projects. I am also looking into new school buildings, but I wanted to start with numbers that are more readily available: Bellingham Public Schools’ vehicle fleet, (although the county is just as guilty as the city when it comes to environmental issues). BPS has 71 diesel buses Here is a link to the list of school buses in the BPS fleet. and on average they get about eight miles per gallon. 

There are no current plans for the schools to buy electric buses, and conversations with Superintendent Greg Baker about the idea have not gone well. Baker related inaccurate information on the capabilities of the buses, including their range. He also contended the heavily stripped Biden Infrastructure bill would only fund about 2.5 billion  to replace fossil fuel based school buses with electric ones. While this may sound like a lot, a new school bus averages around $85,000; just replacing the 71 buses we have will cost $6,035,000. With the national school bus fleet nearing 500,000 vehicles, the cost to replace all of them with electric buses is about $42,500,000,000. Unfortunately, only about 1.06% of the infrastructure bill is slated for school bus replacement. 

So in yet another example of the “efforts” by the well-monied, ruling elite, it will be too little too late. Of course, the environmentally friendly and reasonable effort of installing a publicly owned fiber optic network would help eliminate the need for giant buses and trips all together. But the schools still remain too spineless to take a stand on this critical issue. 

So why am I writing this article? Well the schools, like City Hall, have been busy erroneously patting themselves on the back for the purchase of just a few green vehicles. Is this a step in the right direction? Of course! But it is not even close to enough and they know that. They are trying to distract you from the fact that they have ignored the need to convert to electric for years and, further, have intentionally harmed the environment with their building practices

The standard claim is that their funding mechanisms keep them from doing the right thing. But tax payers happily approve hundreds of millions in tax increases for the schools virtually every time they ask. Especially for technology. 

So why have they ignored going green for so long? Incompetence. The environment hasn’t been on their radar and still isn’t. Some teachers are amazing environmentalists and do care about this issue, they plant community gardens at the schools and have students do artwork of soon to be extinct animals like orcas, but the administrators are stuck in a time warp. For example, recently, I was picking up some public records from the district office. Because they decided to charge me for them this time, I discovered that, despite almost $200 million in tech levy money, the school district can’t accept a credit card payment online. Really? Does $200 million not provide enough extra cash to pay a developer for a few hours to setup a secure credit card payment system? I guess we know now why they still haven’t done much to give you access to their public fiber-optic resources even though the cost is minimal: it just isn’t on their radar. Even after two winters of a global pandemic.

Currently, the schools own 102 other vehicles with an average MPG of about 12, including three Chevy Bolt EVs that the schools purchased recently. Sure, we can make efficiency arguments and say, for example, that a bus carries a lot of people so the amount of fuel used per person is very low. But remember 350.org?  We need to acknowledge how dire our situation is as a species right now and do everything we can to prevent our own extinction by Climate Change.

So I ask the schools, and all large organizations, if you are not going to act now, then when? How can you live up to the Bellingham Promise and say that you will “empower every child to discover and develop their passions, contribute to their community, and achieve a fulfilling and productive life,” if you aren’t at least trying to make sure they won’t starve to death? Define “a fulfilling and productive life.” Is the plan that it will end during their primary school years? 

The more I deal with the schools, the more I get the sense that, although they mean well and are full of nice people, the left hand simply doesn’t know what the right is doing. We need different leadership. 

Comments by Readers

Thomas Gilmore

Oct 31, 2021

Are there any solar panels on any Bellingham School District buildings?  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on new school buildings and on remodeling other buildings!

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Jon Humphrey

Oct 31, 2021

Thanks Thomas, I am writing an entire article on the schools, buildings, and missed opportunities to incorporate green technology into them. I am waiting on documents from a public records request before proceeding. It looks like the answer to your question is NO, but they won’t give me a straight answer, so I’ll have to get back to you after reviewing the materials lists, blueprints, etc.

In short, it looks like they have done next to nothing significant in relation to buildings and incorporating green technology. If you ask them directly, which I have, they will refer you to a website that lists a few token improvements for some of the buildings, like “automatic shudders” but they can’t answer questions like how much insulation was put in and what type. Hence the public records request.

If you push Greg Baker on it he will give you a non-answer and simply say that “the way bond money can be spent is very restrictive.” Which is basically his way of saying that building green is NOT on their radar overall. For example, no CO2 capture was done on cement poured for the new high school project even though the Bill and Melinda Gates Building in Seattle used the process for its entire construction years ago and it’s easy to do. Also, there are ways to use the bond money for green tech, like putting in a battery backup system based on solar instead of diesel generators. Again, they just weren’t thinking about it.

Moving forward they are supposedly putting together a “Facilities Planning Task Force” but one of the major stated goals of the task force is mostly just to learn about how Greg and other administrators feel bond money can be spent. A few other environmentalists and I applied to the Task Force but were not selected. Still, it doesn’t matter. Their goal is not to accomplish anything. It’s to look like they’re doing something when they’re not. Again, Greenwashing 101.

 

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Thomas Gilmore

Nov 01, 2021

Jon, 

Thank you for this detailed response to my solar panel question.  

Does Olympia or the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction have any building codes about solar panels on school buildings?  Does even one public school, college, or university in Washington state have solar panels on the roof?  If not, why not?

Have any WA state, county, or city buildings installed solar panels?

Why has it taken us 20 years to start asking the question about solar panel building codes and requirements for public buildings?

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Ray Kamada

Nov 01, 2021

Don’t know about Fleetwood/City Council, but County Exec Satpal Sidhu seems to keep an eye on NW Cit.

So, 1) I would ask you and Satpal whether the City/County has plans a/o wherewithal to purchase buses from the electric bus factory that’s being erected in the Ferndale area, which Satpal has been touting?

A lot of this, of course, depends on 2) who’s seated after this week’s election. I can’t vote for city seats but all their council candidates seem at least moderately progressive. But at the county level will it be automatic thumbs downers like Elenbaas, Kershner, and Byrd, or potential change advocates like Donovan, Buchanan, and Lewis? Same goes for the Port Commission and School Boards, even the water and fire districts.

As a public aside, please don’t be fooled by dog whistlers like Phil Stockton or a Tyler Byrd, who revels in the “Eddie Haskell” approach to electioneering. 

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Ellen Baker-Glacier

Nov 01, 2021

I’m curious, so I’ll stick my neck out by asking:   If the district did buy electric buses, how much electricity would those consume?  Electricity isn’t a natural resource, it has to be generated somehow.  I don’t know if it’s possible for an outfit like the school district to put up enough solar panels to recharge the buses (vehicles) if they were electric.  I expect it would take masses of solar panels and batteries to gather and store enough electricity to recharge a bus fleet, and my guess is that would have to be extremely expensive as well to build and maintain.  If the intention would be to use electricity “from the grid,” what would all that electricity cost?

Also, if a community thinks that a transition like this is critical, why not bear the burden (the expense) directly?  I just Googled electric school bus prices generally, and the answer was “about $400,000” not $85,000.   Did some outfit quote $85,000 per bus (71 x 85,000 = $6,035,000)?   Not knowing what the actual (real) expense would be for buses and recharging, I can’t guess at the per-capita expense, but if it’s worth it, would people pull out their wallets?

(Cliche-platitude alert)   As for getting money from Olympia or Washington DC, “what goes around comes around” and “there’s no free lunch.”   There’s no ‘free money’ - gosh I wish there were, but “it doesn’t grow on trees.”

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Ray Kamada

Nov 01, 2021

Off the cuff, EV power costs typically a third the cost of gasoline. Being new tech, EVs cost a bit more upfront than ICE vehicles, but life cycle costs are lower, due to lower fuel and maintenance costs (EVs have far fewer moving parts: no pistons, valves, trannies, fuel injectors, exhaust manifolds, catalytic convertors, etc.).

OTOH, PSE’s electricity is only ~40% green, transitioning to ~50%, as our legislature forced PSE to sell off its Montana coal interests. BTW, hydro powers PUD-1 and the Sumas and Blaine power districts. So, like Seattle Light and Power, they’re close to 100% green.

However, PUD-1’s power went mostly to the Intalco aluminum smelter, which closed. So, who gets that power now? Anybody know? Satpal? 

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Ellen Baker-Glacier

Nov 01, 2021

Thanks for the information Ray.  I have wondered what’s become of PUD1’s “supply” (and revenue bonds) since Intalco closed.  I don’t think that PUD1, Sumas, or Blaine generate a watt - they ‘resell’ what’s on the grid.  It’s all interesting, as I’ve long been a big supporter of hydro.  There’s nothing cleaner.  (Solar panels and batteries ... pretty far from “clean”)

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Jon Humphrey

Nov 01, 2021

Thanks guys, I did get the cost of an ICE at $85K stuck in my head. This article shows electric school buses starting around $230K. https://www.nj.com/news/2021/03/electric-school-buses-are-expensive-but-these-2-ideas-could-make-getting-them-easier.html

This actually makes Biden’s insufficient school bus replacement funding in his plan worse. Since the cost of replacing just the BPS fleet would go to $16,330,000 and the nationwide fleet of 500,000 buses to $115,000,000,000. This would also drop the replacement percentage from the Biden plan to about 0.35 percent of the fleet instead of 1.06% since they are only putting $2.5 billion towards it. However, just the new high school cost $90 million and was unnecessary. So these buses cost over 5 times less than the new school and are necessary to clean up the air and water, etc. Building new buildings is always bad for the environment and with so many empty buildings around town, almost always unnecessary.

So my overall point that from the local level to the federal level of our governmental entitles and public institutions are just greenwashing is valid.

As far as fuel goes. Yes, PSE’s natural gas fired plants do use fossil fuels. However, the cost of electricity is always lower and cleaner than an ICE. Most ICEs are at best 30% efficient and the dangerous fuel they use has to be transported in liquid form long distances to many different places in most cases further decreasing their efficiency. That fuel has to be purchased at about $4 a gallon currently. Electricity by comparison jumps to at least 40% efficiency, 60% in some cases, even if using natural gas and the cost per gallon is largely determined by region. For example, charging in Hawaii is a lot more expensive than here. However, on average the cost of electricity per gallon is currently about $1 per gallon and your default efficiency goes up at least 10%. https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Comparing_gasoline,_diesel,_natural_gas,_and_electricity_prices
Also, what price can we put on clean air, water, and a planet that can still support our species?

Solar panels pay for themselves after installation since the power they produce is essentially free for about 30 years after the upfront costs are met. 

Still, it is obvious to me that we need to look at next generation nuclear power too. NO 3 Mile Island/Fukushima/Chernobyl style high-pressure uranium reactors! But, there are low-pressure Thorium systems that are very promising like pebble bed and molten salt reactors. 

 

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Ellen Baker-Glacier

Nov 01, 2021

Ray:  You wrote “EVs cost a bit more upfront than ICE vehicles”   What’s an ICE vehicle?   **NEVER MIND” I Googled it:   Internal Combustion Engine

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Ellen Baker-Glacier

Nov 01, 2021

Why would a community look to the federal government to replace their school buses?   The national debt’s already insane.  Also - whenever you apply for funds from ‘central’ cash pots, you’re throwing your fate into others hands - end up in line behind all sorts of other applicants, proposals.

If this is a “save the world” moment, fork out the money locally and “just do it”??

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Jon Humphrey

Nov 01, 2021

So I should make some more general economic points about the vehicles as the environomental points are obvious.

The cost of fossil fuels will continue to rise while it is technically possible to bring the cost of electricity down and make its mixture much cleaner, if done correctly.  

So with a cost savings currently of about $3 per gallon on fuel, soon to be $4, you not only switch to a vehcile that will clean up the air, but you also make up for the $145,000 difference cost very rapidly. The electric vehicle “pays for itself.”  

The frustrating thing is that if this process had started years ago we would already be replacing aging buses with electric buses, instead of maintaining or replacing ICE buses. The idea of a large, well-monied, entity like a school district buying a new fossil based vehicle is crazy. 

This is true of fiber-optics as well. If we just mandated that repairs of old wired infrastructure had to be done with fiber we would have a nationwide fiber network by now at very low expense. 

With all infrastructure the problems are not technological, they are political. Our fake progressive government has its lips collectively glued to the asses of PSE, big telecom, developers, and more. This is why we don’t see movement on these issues even though the need is obvious. 

It has made sense to upgrade and imrpove for decades now. I’d argue since Rachel Carson released “Silent Spring” in 1954 and started the modern environomentalist movement. Excuses like, “we just couldn’t figure out how to spend 1% - 10% of the hundreds of miliions the schools received in bond money on significant green upgrades” or “the schools just didn’t think this would be an issue” will matter little when our children are starving to death. On top of that, many of these imrpvements could have been done with green tech as buildings were being improved, built, etc. as I pointed out in the articles. 

People talk about fossil fuels, and upgrades, as if they have no cost and electric/renewables are just too expensive. But fossil fuels have a cost that greatly outweighs any other. The actual cost of gas/diesel if you factor in the environonmental damage is an additional .38 cents per gallon. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/20/science/earth/20fossil.html You can’t make any money on a dead plaent off, of a dead hairless ape species, with a collapsed economy. 

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Helen Brandt

Nov 01, 2021

An alternative to using solar panels to provide electricity for buses is to use wind turbines that create the electricity needed to create hydrogen used by buses. There is much activity in Europe regarding hydrogen powered buses and wind turbines for making hydrogen. Web searching can find lots of information.

https://www.ballard.com/markets/transit-bus

https://www.carboncommentary.com/blog/2021/8/11/hydrogen-made-at-the-wind-turbine

 In another time, only kids in farmland, rural areas needed a school bus to get to school. City and town kids walked to school.  And in some places, the high school students rode public transit to school.

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Ellen Baker-Glacier

Nov 02, 2021

Many urban areas (New York City, Chicago) use central public transportation to get kids to and from schools.  Maybe the WTA should centralize - plan routes to serve both schools and the general public.

I know this has been done successfully in some rural counties in states like Minnesota, too (why duplicate mass transport?)  Both public transit and schools buses are often half-empty or worse.  Sacred cows?  

IMHO, there are all sorts of ‘opportunities’ out there; certainly plenty of room for improvement.  Consolidation too radical?

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Jon Humphrey

Nov 04, 2021

So I have some updates on the schools and their continued greenwashing. I should note that at this point BPS has taken a play straight from the COB Public Works Director “How To Protect Special Interests” Playbook and has started stonewalling me, and I’m sure others, on getting information. They require the lenghty public records request process instead of just answering simple questions.

While I am mostly waiting to talk about the new school buildings in my buildings article, there are things worth mentioning. Thanks to my fellow NWCitizen writer Alex McClean for providing many of these details. He is the writer of many articles, including the articles on the environomental hate crime the school committed when they placed the bus barn on top of the salmon bearing stream referred to above when many better sites were available.

OSPI also propvided me with a response that highlights some of the backward thinking going on at BPS in realtion to the environment. I’ll post it below after making a few other comments.

So Sehome does have a small solar array. It was NOT part of the original building plans even though the school cost $105 million dollars and solar is simply not that expensive. What are the capabilities of the array? Well, I’m sure the schools are hiring a PR firm with lots of smiling people standing by solar planels on it, but they have not provided these numbers, either because they don’t know or because they want to make it hard to find out. The contractor donated aroudn $100K as an afterthought to put the array up and various other non-profits were involved in putting them up, but most likely the array doesn’t do much and was definately an afterthought. People were asking, “hey why does this new building not have solar” so they put up what a small amount when it should have been part of the overall plan. Again, greenwashing.

While “The City of Bellingham, WWU, the County, all State funded capital projects for buildings, and even our prisons and jails are required to be LEED commissioned. BPS does not though.”—Alex

Here is the OSPI response I received:

” Hi Jon –

Thank you for your question to the Superintendent regarding district school facility siting and environmentally friendly upgrades.

Since Bellingham Public Schools Transportation Garage project did not receive state funding assistance and was funding entirely by local funds, OSPI did not review or provide oversight of the project.

However, when selecting a site to place a school facility, school districts are required to follow the Washington State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) RCW 43.21C.120 and Washington Administrative Code 197-11. 

Also, if the transportation project or other school project received funding from the state’s capital budget the project would have been required to meet the High Performance Public Buildings Act (RCW 39.35D) which requires school districts to design and construct school facilities to meet either the Washington Sustainable Schools Protocol (WSSP) or LEED Silver.

Randy”

—It should be noted that WSSP is a total joke since the process is a self-certification process with contrators, etc. checking off a list. LEED is certified by a 3rd party, and therefore the higher standard, but I’d argue that any level below LEED Gold is a total joke. I’ll elaborate on this in my next article. Still, something is better than nothing. Again, the schools don’t have a local policy of having to participate in any of this and the state can’t “make them” if they don’t take state funds. However, you would think that BPS would voluntaliary adopt policies like this. For example, no new building should be built without CO2 capture for the concrete. LEED does not require this until LEEDs highest level of LEED Zero.  

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Liz Marshall

Nov 04, 2021

Thank you for a wonderful expose of a local tragedy, Jon. Hypothetically, if zoning evolved and old buses were replaced, would converted old buses be a resource for temporary or even housing of the unhoused?

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Jon Humphrey

Nov 05, 2021

Thanks Liz, I’ve already decided to write another piece specifically on this topic. Why? Many wonderful members of the community have been feeding me lots of great information on the topic, surrounding communities are doing much more than we are (just like with public broadband too btw), I’ve had continued conversations with OSPI and the schools, and more.

Still, you bring up the Elephant in the Gymnasium here. What to do with the old buses?! Or more importantly, what to do with the ones that are in really good shape and have hundreds of thousands of miles left in them?

Before I go on let me specifically say that yes, some have had success with using buses and old shipping containers to create housing. So it is possible. However, Bellingham and Whatcom County have many empty structures. The nationwide estimate for vacant homes in the US is 13.9 million. https://checkyourfact.com/2019/12/24/fact-check-633000-homeless-million-vacant-homes/

There are also many other vacant structures that our anti-worker, pro-developer, government refuse to rezone or allow to be used for housing. Some of these are hotels that are up for sale, empty giant retail locations, and more. So in short, we have more than enough vacant structures to use to solve our problems and since building new buildings is always bad for the environment, we should use these structures first. However, this is not the goal of the power-elite who want to turn everything into an excuse to give predatory developers a contract to make more unaffordable housing and other buildings.

So we come up against the issue with incompetent leadership who refuse to plan ahead or intentionally choose not to, to protect special interests like big telecom. See my articles on Lilliquists’ and Johnstons’ fake conduit ordinance, the pro-big telecom “Broadband Advisory Group (BAG)” and more. At the end of the day these “advisory groups” are made to stall progress while special interests regroup and accomplish very little. They are made to give citizens the illusion that work is being done on important issues when it is not.

So we get to the schools and their new “Facilities Advisory Board (FAB).” Well, I looked though the list of people on it today, and it looks that just like the BAG, and the Climate Action Task Force with mega-polluter PSE on it, the group is mostly being formed to maintain the status quo. The schools are well aware of what needs to be done, but they are afraid to hold wealthy interests accountable, so they’re probably not going to do anything. How do I know? I know a few hardcore environmentalists, including myself, who applied to be on the FAB and all were rejected. Plus, we’ve seen this play from the COB, the County, the Port, the PUD and the schools a million times before.

Back to the buses. In the meantime, there is a $141 million dollars in grant money available from the VW emissions scandal specifically for emissions reducing transportation options. Many other school districts, with competent leadership, applied for and received electric buses. For example, 3 are going to Olympia and 1 is even going to Orcas Island. A total of 40 buses are going out and will be in operation by next year, some by January. Apparently their admins weren’t asleep at the wheel. Pun both intended and not intended, but BPS didn’t even apply.

To add insult to injury, BPS has a Director of Facilities and Sustainability named Mark Peterson. However, largely because Greg Baker is not into tech himself as he has admitted to me, we have few concrete policies. Sure, sometimes local orgs. help with gardens, sometimes a solar array is put up, but there are no good concrete forward-thinking policies.  

I started talking to Greg about this 4 or 5 years ago. Had a policy been put into place then, then we would not be throwing out perfectly good diesel buses and replacing them with electric buses, we’d be replacing old buses with new electric buses. But that’s not the situation because, just like with public fiber, our institutions were focused on pleasing a very small number of the power elite and now we are in the situation of replacing dirty, but virtually new, diesel buses with electric ones.

Still, you can make a good argument for it. The cost of fossil fuels will continue to rise. Currently it’s about $4 for a gallon of diesel and we should add another 38 cents onto every gallon for environmental damage. So electric buses literally pay for themselves. However, what a shame it is to be in this situation when a bit of planning would have avoided it and when the state is literally “GIVING AWAY ELECTRIC BUSES VIA GRANTS!”

So the problem is never money in Bellingham/Whatcom County. It’s corruption, incompetence and spinelessness. Look at the Port. They have millions in a rural broadband grant but have sat on it for years while Ken Bell and some staff members try to maneuver themselves into a position to give it all in corporate welfare to special interests and big telecom for less useful solutions. Satpal did the same thing with broadband too, btw. The COB has an existing public network they could literally make money off of via leasing (like Mount Vernon does), but they sit on it to protect big telecom and the county seems to think that fiber-optic cabling is something you eat to stay regular. Even the PUD, with 3 out of 3 commissioners agreeing that they should do fiber, has sat on their hands because they’re afraid to hold staff accountable, but broadband is a huge part of reducing our emission and fiber is the best, most eco-friendly, solution. The PUD also has hundreds of millions to spend, and a county-wide network is only estimated to be $160 million and will last 100 years. Plus, they make money off of leasing it out. So it pays for itself. Fiber makes money it doesn’t lose it. Plus, there are grants available for that too.

So again, the problem isn’t money. It’s that our officials, including our high-level school admins. are part of a big power-elitist club and they don’t answer to us. In short, they don’t care what we think. Still with 8.5 years left to halt and begin to reverse emissions before our kids starve to death it’s about time that we stopped putting up with it.

 

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Liz Marshall

Nov 05, 2021

Thank you, Jon. I shared this article, and will share those you have in development on these topics.  

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