EXCLUSIVE: The Trottier Family Foundation, highlighting electric school buses’ climate and health benefits, will fund 10 organizations over two years to lobby governments, conduct policy research and build grassroots support
What will it take to dramatically boost the number of Canadian children riding to and from school in clean electric buses instead of dirty diesel-powered ones?
If you’re Eric St-Pierre, executive director of the Montreal-based Trottier Family Foundation (TFF), the answer to that question boils down to three words: Be a catalyst.
Last month, the TFF — a private foundation that supports registered charities working in education, science, health and environment/climate change — awarded $800,000 to 10 organizations to launch a range of actions aimed at rapidly increasing the deployment of electric school buses in Canada.
The project mandates includes government relations, stakeholder outreach, policy research and training for bus operators.
“We could have just said, let’s buy three electric school buses,” says St-Pierre, in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada, revealing details of the grants for the first time. “But we’re hoping with this work that we’ll be able to push the levers and have governments come on board. Then hopefully we’ll have 300 electric school buses or 3,000.
“We’re seeing this as catalytic capital that will lead to stronger systems change.”
Climate and health
The foundation’s ultimate objectives include both climate action and health impacts.
“We thought, here’s a sector we think could decarbonize fairly quickly,” says St-Pierre. “But then there’s a lot of social and health co-benefits tied to electric school buses.”
In its RFP document, the TFF included references to studies that show children are exposed to three times more fine particles and pollutants in diesel school buses versus electric.
“It’s actually really hard to be against this if you’re a politician and you’re listening to the demands of teachers, of students, of parents,” says St-Pierre.
Seven projects selected
TFF has awarded the money to 10 organizations, for seven projects, in four regions — British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes. A total of $200,000 is earmarked for each region, spread over two years.
The seven projects were chosen from a total of 15 applications submitted in response to a request for proposals issued by TFF this past summer. To qualify, the lead applicant on each proposal (four chosen are joint submissions) had to be a registered charity.
The recipients are:
- British Columbia (1): For Our Kids and Pembina Institute
- Ontario (3): Pollution Probe and Delphi Group; Pembina Institute and Green Economy Canada; Ecology Ottawa
- Quebec (2): Propulsion Québec; Équiterre
- Maritimes (1): Conservation Council of New Brunswick and Ecology Action Centre
When it comes to the specific projects, “there’s different pieces to it,” says St-Pierre. The approaches and objectives chosen reflect each region’s size, policy environment and existing level of electric school bus penetration.
In Quebec, for example, where the government has already set a target of converting 65 per cent of the province’s school bus fleet to electric by 2030 and budgeted $250 million to help achieve it, Équiterre’s role will be to act as a “watchdog” to validate implementation and identify gaps and opportunities.
Propulsion Québec, meanwhile, will create technical guides for bus operators to support implementation and address potential inequity in uptake. Currently, says St-Pierre, Quebec’s incentives are being used more by large operators than small ones. The latter, he explains, “are like mom and pop, they have three diesel buses,…they’re just getting by, they don’t have an understanding of where to they install chargers, who do they call, and how do they get access to capital.”
In Ontario, on the other hand, which has the country’s largest school bus fleet (about 18,000) but no provincial commitments (the current government scrapped an electric school bus pilot plan when it took office in 2018), all three projects will include different facets of government relations work to make the case for electric school bus adoption, backed by policy research demonstrating economic opportunities for the province should it act.
The TFF RFP documents also note that a provincial election there next June “opens up a critical window of opportunity.”
Both B.C. and the Maritime provinces, meanwhile, are seen to be ripe for action. In both areas there is already strong grassroots support, so efforts will focus on giving school boards and local governments a bigger push.
In all, St-Pierre describes the seven projects as “a nice balance” of putting outside pressure on school boards and governments as well as an “inside game” helping to educate stakeholders, build grassroots support and shape policy and programs.
The other key part of this story, of course, is that it highlights the potential role philanthropic organizations can play in moving forward Canada’s transition to zero-emission transportation — with Trottier Family Foundation setting the example.
“To our understanding, there was nobody funding electric school bus work in Canada,” says St-Pierre. “So we’re sort of creating a market, if you will, for this work and raising this issue, because we’re able to provide capacity to the various organizations.”
TFF hasn’t ruled out extending the funding beyond the initial two-year timeline, but St-Pierre says for the moment it wants to see how its initial plans play out. He’s also hopeful that other charity sector funders will join TFF as the work it’s seeded gains profile.
“At some point, the market will be able to fully electrify all school buses. But right now, I think we need some government support, we need some policies,” he says. “Government policy can have a pretty big impact.”
Subsidies and contracts
In some cases, small policy changes can make a big difference. To illustrate, St-Pierre points to Quebec where the government has started to phase out a long-standing subsidy that allowed school bus operators to offset the cost of diesel fuel.
“What I’ve been hearing in Quebec is that ever since they’ve gotten rid of that subsidy, the market’s just completely shifted,” he says.
Another option is for school boards to offer longer contracts to operators with electric school buses versus diesel.
“It doesn’t cost anything,” says St-Pierre, but it “basically sends a signal to the operator” that if they pay the higher upfront costs of an electric school bus, they’ll be able to count on a longer contract to recoup their investment.”