By Kevin Stark

Schools are letting out, and that means many yellow buses are headed to storage.

But what if instead of sitting idle for much of the summer, school buses had a seasonal job helping to balance the electric grid?

The state of Illinois is about to test that potential with what environmental groups say could be the start of a transformational investment for both air quality and the electric grid.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to spend $10.8 million of its Volkswagen settlement money on electric school buses, a larger carve out than any other state.

The plan has been cheered by environmental advocates who say the money will benefit the state’s power grid and public health — especially for kids exposed to exhaust from diesel buses — even as critics in the natural gas industry say it would be more cost effective to invest in propane buses.

“The electric school bus component of (Illinois EPA’s) proposal is the element promising the most positive transformation,” said Susan Mudd, senior policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center, speaking at a public comment session hosted by state environmental official in Chicago last month.

She said the money could provide a shot in the arm for electric school buses in Illinois and be enough to bring the buses to several school districts.

As Illinois officials debate how to prepare the grid to transform with electric vehicles, electric school buses present a unique opportunity to strengthen the state’s grid. School buses run on a fixed schedule — children are dropped off at school in the morning and picked up in the afternoon. The rest of the day, buses can be plugged into the grid and serve as batteries.

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