The fastest electric vehicle fleet makeover in the west
Transportation is the largest single source of carbon emissions in the U.S.
People who can electrify vehicle fleets are in demand — especially in school districts, where diesel emissions are causing skyrocketing rates of childhood asthma.
Yesh talks with the ebullient Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas, who raised millions of dollars to bring electric buses to one of America’s biggest school districts.
Original release date: Sept 7, 2022
This transcript was auto-generated from an audio recording. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 00:01
Y’know, my kids aren’t old enough to ride the school bus.
But I don’t know how many times I’ve passed those long lines of buses, waiting to take hundreds of kids home. In some neighborhoods, thank heavens, they’re no longer allowed to idle their engines. Because those diesel emissions are TERRIBLE for kids.
Well, I couldn’t have been more shocked recently to learn that the air INSIDE buses is even worse! Kids riding school buses are breathing air TEN TIMES dirtier than the air outside. This dirty air causes high rates of asthma. It hurts the development of the lungs, the heart — and, ironically since they’re school buses – their brains. It’s just not fair to our kids.
You’d think we would have solved this problem by now.
But we haven’t.
Today, less than 1 percent of school buses are electric.
It’s past time to fix this, so our kids can breathe clean air. And because, hey, Net Zero.
Electrifying transportation is an essential piece of the Net Zero puzzle. Electric school buses are just the start. Next comes trucks, planes, shipping… then entire cities and nations. Going electric will reduce emissions by 6 gigatons a year!
In this episode, we’ll talk about how hard it is to electrify school bus fleets. And you’ll learn about the school district that became the unlikely blueprint for a zero-emission fleet future. And how tackling the school bus problem can help you get a green career.
Change is coming, oh yeah
Ain’t no holding it back
Ain't no running
Change is coming, oh yeah!
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 02:00
This is Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers from Environmental Defense Fund. I’m your host, Yesh Pavlik Slenk. For the better part of the last decade, it’s been my job to help students use their talent and passion to get experience and jobs that serve the planet.
Today, I’m talking with Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas. Gilbert is amazing…he directs sustainability at Modesto City Schools in Modesto, California – he’s one of the premier electric school bus experts in the country…
But that’s not really what makes him so amazing. What makes him stand out is the blinding speed with which he’s been able to do it.
And what impresses me even more? He turns for help and inspiration to the people this problem affects the most: our KIDS.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 02:50
I think that it's the right idea at the right time, right now. The longer we wait -- I mean, once these 30 buses come on the road, our air gets better around our kids. That's the bottom line. And so for me, it's a no brainer.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 03:03
Gilbert’s talking about 30 electric buses that are soon to come to the Modesto City School District. But before we get to the details, let’s back up a bit.
Even though Gilbert is a leader in school bus electrification, he only got into it a few years ago. For many years, Gilbert was a heating and air conditioning contractor. He traveled all around central California and the Bay Area installing A/C – and monitoring how much energy big buildings were using.
Ten years ago, he was done with private sector jobs. He made the switch to the public sector, working for the public schools in Stockton, California. He took a job as the Energy Education Specialist at the Stockton Unified School District.
That job would be no small task!
Stockton Unified has 55 schools and about 40,000 students.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 04:05
It's very diverse, has a lot of different people in it, a lot of different nationalities. And so it is a melting pot.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 04:11
Nearly 80 percent of Stockton Unified students come from low income families. Gilbert says, kids in lower income areas are more likely to ride a school bus. That means they’re exposed to – listen to this – eight times more air pollution than kids in high income areas.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 04:31
And not only those that ride the bus, but there's also idling buses near schoolyards when they're loading them in and out. Kids are all around those fumes. The other interesting thing about Stockton is it's near agricultural bases and it's near, you know, one of the highest asthma rates in the state.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 04:46
I read that Stockton is in the 96th percentile for air pollution and the 100th percentile for asthma. So it sounds like the high industry environment is encapsulating them in these higher rates of exposure.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 05:00
A lot of these people in these areas are economically sanctioned to different sections that they can afford. It's really what they can afford and where they can live. And so it's cheaper to live near the port or to be near agriculture or somewhere else than it would be in the main city or with a lot of room and a lot better air quality. And so a lot of it is economic decisions that they are forced into.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 05:23
Gilbert's new job, back in 2012, was to save energy at Stockton Unified, which would also help them save money and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. It would be a win-win. Not only would Stockton’s accountants and taxpayers be happier, the kids would breathe easier.
The first changes Gilbert wanted to make… were simple.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 05:44
Well, I'm trying to save money on utilities, right? So it's power, water, electricity, all these different things that you're trying to adjust. I'm walking around and I see doors are open with classrooms that have the air conditioner or the heating running. And so I would say, “Hey, at the end of the night, teachers, please turn off everything and keep the doors closed, where the air is running.” And typically they'd kinda look down at my badge and go, uh, who are you? And why do I have to listen to you?
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 06:08
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 06:09
Sometimes it's about doing things the same way, you've always done them. People like, uh, fight or resist change a lot of times.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 06:15
So Gilbert decided to try another way -- the kids! He taught a group of fourth graders about reducing power. Then, they formed a group called the Energy Patrol and made a video.
Energy patrol video 06:28
Hi! We are the SUSD energy patrol!
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 06:33
I thought if I taught little kids to wear yellow jackets and green hats and, you know, for, for kids to say, please shut your doors. Please turn the lights off. Every time you leave, please, you know, check for water leaks and all that, all that made sense.
These are fourth graders talking to you about enviro transpiration rates and how to do irrigation schedules and heating schedules and turn lights off. It’s all the common sense stuff.
Energy patrol video 06:56
We are concerned about our planet and our school district…we want to show you what kids can do to help… our goal is to reduce the money we spend on utilities through behavior modification…that means changing what they do and how they do with without spending a bunch of money.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 07:14
Then, the Energy Patrol went to the school board.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 07:17
And they actually got a standing ovation with the crowd that was there with about 50 or 60 parents standing up for these students and their kids. That was phenomenal. Um, I really did realize that I have, you know, a real concern for environmental justice. And then also realizing that I am an educator that I love to teach kids about how they can become involved in this. This is not something that you should have on a textbook. This is something that they should walk around and do with you. Job shadowing, internships. I try to involve the students in everything that we do because then it's not only about them but it includes them and it's for them and it's with them. I mean, this actually does teach them or empower them about what they can do to change their own environment and to help save money.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 8:05
With the school board behind the new energy changes, teachers finally started turning off lights. Over two thirds of the buildings started running on solar power. The district offset more than 80 percent of their energy consumption with solar.
That was great. But something was nagging at Gilbert.
He wanted to go bigger.
He wanted an electric school bus fleet.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 08:32
To me, I'm a heating and air conditioning guy. They look like furnaces on a pedestal. They look like just gas pumps. To me, I knew project management wise, we could get it done in less than a year.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 08:42
Electric school buses, upfront, cost two to three times more than a diesel bus.
And if your community has ever tried to pass a school bond or other ways to raise more money for public schools, you probably know just how difficult that is. How contentious. In my neighborhood, arguments at school board meetings? Let’s just say there’s a lot of yelling.
So to replace a diesel bus -- one that still works -- with an electric bus that costs around $400,000?
Even though in the long run electric school buses SAVE money, the up-front cost stops most districts from even trying to get an electric bus.
Stockton Unified certainly didn’t have the money.
But that didn’t stop Gilbert. He knew there had to be a way.
We’ll be back in a moment to find out what he did.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 09:50
And we’re back with my conversation with Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas. He’s on the advisory board of the World Resources Institute’s project to electrify all the school buses in the US by 2030.
In 2019, Gilbert had a lot to sort out. He had to figure out… how to get millions of dollars. How to get charging stations compatible with the buses he wanted to order. How to get the utility company to hook everything up. How to train bus drivers in this new technology. How to get the school board and administration to approve these new changes!
Eventually, Gilbert found support through the state. The California Air Resources Board was awarding grants to help schools work towards net zero emissions So, working with some partners, he applied. And won! Stockton Unified was awarded nearly 5 million dollars.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 10:50
And that's where the race and the change began.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 10:53
Gilbert’s first step in Getting Stockton Unified to Net Zero was to start buying electric buses.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 11:00
For $5 million, we got four buses and we got 24 chargers.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 11:06
With Gilbert pushing as hard as he could, Stockton Unified got more grants…and would end up buying a total of 11 buses.
The huge money challenge was now taken care of. BUT -- there was another, even bigger problem: people. As Gilbert says, it’s not like you could get a single department on board and that would be that. No…it’s a LOT more complicated…It takes tremendous persuasive talents to battle all the bureaucracy and skepticism.
But Gilbert had a magic bullet.
It’s his confidence in himself as a project manager…y’know, from back when he was managing HVAC systems. That was the skill he needed to cut through the tangled web of management headaches.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 11:54
And it's kinda like spinning plates. You keep track of all the different things that are going. It's hard to do electrification for a school district because it crosses over so many departments and so many barriers. You know, like, how does it design? How do I get the contractors together? And then building it. There isn't somebody at transportation that has the time -- they're worried about getting kids to school back and forth. Well then with grants and so forth, the admins gotta be behind it to want to do it. And the budget people have to be able to figure out how to finance it and how to make it all work. So the hard part is getting all those plates to spin the right way.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 12:30
Gilbert set an ambitious goal: less than a year. That is UNHEARD of the electric school bus world.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 12:40
I've got a little bit of ADD so I like to be busy and I can do 15 plates at once. And so, um, it just seemed like the right thing to do. Like I said, and I also realized that time is money, right? So the longer we take to do things, the more scope we have to cut out. It costs us more. There are lead time items. The longer you take to get it done, the more changes will happen or delays will happen.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 13:03
The first 5 million dollars came in January 2020. In March, Covid hit…and the schools were closed. Despite that chaos, Gilbert kept things moving. In the Spring, with the 5 million in hand, he got approval to start converting to electric buses.
Then, he needed his site and design plans approved by PG&E, the utility company. The problem was, they were ALSO working remotely because of Covid.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 13:30
The hard part was that PG&E was shut down. So I had to get them to look at the plans over the phone or by email and then also come out to the site. And I said, well, even though it's Covid, you can be a hundred yards apart. I don't care how much distance you do.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 13:43
In July, he got PG&E to approve the building plans. The next step was building the 24 charging stations.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 13:50
October 1st, right about there, we broke ground. And by Christmas, December we had everything built in all installed.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 13:58
After the new year, in early 2021, Gilbert ordered the rest of the buses.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 14:03
And then in March 23rd buses started showing up and we started charging them. So it was a track star pace. It was the fastest deployment that I've heard of in the nation actually.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 14:14
“Track star pace.” Gilbert uses that phrase a lot. The trackstar mentality is what Gilbert lives by.
In other words, jump that hurdle, cross the finish line, before anyone else can…by learning and training, over and over, so that every time he attempts a huge project, he can do it faster.
I just want you all to copy and paste this model all over the nation – no matter whether you’re working on school buses, or electric cars, or trucks, or buildings – whatever you’re doing to get to Net Zero. What’s transferable isn’t just his model! What’s really transferable is that Gilbert has no fear of failure. Because he knows, in his gut, that this is the right thing to do. And clearly, it’s possible.
It gives me hope.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 15:15
OK, back to Gilbert’s timeline. While kids were suffering through that Covid summer, figuring out how to have fun without really leaving the house, Gilbert was, well, directing traffic. He was making sure the new buses and chargers were tested.
[SCHOOL BUS NOISE]
By August, eleven electric buses were bringing kids back to the classroom. Their air was cleaner. And there was another benefit…
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 15:43
So you probably remember being on the bus and there’s clamor and noise and everything else going on. Well, not so with electric buses cus they don’t have that internal combustion engine. It’s actually a lot quieter, so the kids don’t have to compete for noise levels. The bus drivers love it because it’s not near as noisy and they don’t have to hear that. They just hear the students.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 16:00
Gilbert sees Stockton’s success as a blueprint for other schools -- especially ones that are underfunded and serve low income students. There is grant funding out there. Often, schools just need one champion who’s willing to spin the plates.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 16:16
We may not have, uh, a, you know, a blank checkbook in a lot of states or a lot of different school districts but for $5 million, you could set up a district and do it. And then duplicate that throughout the country.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 16:29
Gilbert’s point is, California might have more funding for electric school buses than less climate-progressive states. But, still, there is money out there. For instance, the Biden Administration recently launched the Clean School Bus Program. From now until 2026, the EPA is giving out 5 billion dollars in rebates to help schools get zero and low emission school buses. We’ll get more into this later.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 17:06
Stockton’s new electric buses – that’s just one part of their success. Students now have a much greater exposure to green technologies – and the potential for green careers.
Gilbert says he’ll always remember Clean Air Day at Stockton Unified. They held it a couple months after kids started riding the electric buses.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 17:26
We did a celebration and we had a bus out there for kids to see. Well, one of the students -- I'll never forget -- came up. And he said, ‘You know, I live near the school and I don't get to ride the bus. Could I go inside?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 17:38
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 17:39
He walked in and he goes, ahhh, mmm new bus smell, you know? And it was just so cute. And that's why I've said too, that electric school buses for the disadvantaged community really are a symbol of hope and a means of change. It's a way that you can concretely do something that will change their lives. So it really does actively get them involved and learn that when you can see, touch and feel things, this could be your future.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 18:04
Gilbert wants his students to understand that they, too, can have green careers. That’s why he loves getting the kids involved in every step he can.
He told me about a conversation that really struck him, with a couple of high school students. It was California Clean Air Day.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 18:23
So I'm out there with high school students and they're meeting people on our team, you know, Schneider electric, uh, Mobility House, Sage energy consulting, A to Z Bus Sales and California Resources Board, all these different people. And as they're out there, the one kid looks at me and he goes, ‘What kind of inverters do you use on the solar panel to maximize the efficiency?’ And I went, ‘uh, oh, I don't know.’
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 18:46
And you picked your jaw off the floor.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 18:49
Yeah, yeah! -- I don't know. But I'm very excited that you wanna know, and I will find out the answer for you. The other thing I told these kids, cuz they're high school students is I said, you've seen people doing charger management. You've seen women in construction. I said, all these different people. They're role models. So you tell me, what is your green job gonna be? What do you want? And the one guy, Monsai, looks at the other guy and says, ‘What's his title?’ And I laugh because I want him to have my title. It's the only way. We have to hand off the baton to our students.
And then the other thing is, it's the right thing to do. We are cutting greenhouse gasses around us and the emissions and we're making our communities better. But I do wanna know that I've passed the baton onto those that are even more excited and more capable and more talented. Cuz you're right. It's not about focusing on me. It's about learning the skills that we need to make our world a better place. And involving the kids in that is paramount for me.
You know, it's the same thing about teaching people to fish. You can either do it for them or you can teach them how or show them what you did that way you truly do pass on. And so one of the byproducts is caring about environmental justice in these areas. And so everybody listening to this, I wanna encourage you, that you can be that difference. You just have to pick up the baton or make a stance or try.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 20:12
The World Resources Institute has an electric bus initiative to electrify ALL of the school buses in the US by 2030. That’s nearly half a million buses in eight years. As I mentioned, Gilbert is on the advisory board. He says that, they need people like you, who want a planet-saving career, to jump in. Because the jobs are here.
Alison Wiley 20:36
The field is growing and it's going to keep growing. And the five billion in funding is, is one evidence of that.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 20:44
That’s Alison Wiley. She co-founded a group called Women for Advancing School Bus Electrification. She’s so into this that she writes a widely read newsletter… the Electric School Bus Newsletter.
Put demand together with this new money that we’re getting from the EPA, and it adds up to one thing: Job growth. We’ve heard from all kinds of employers in the electric school bus sector -- and they all said the same thing: WE ARE HIRING.
You could be an IT specialist at a bus manufacturer like Lion Electric. They’re bringing thousands of manufacturing jobs to the US and Canada. Or, you could be a community organizer with a grassroots organization like Chispas, which helps LatinX communities around the country fight environmental injustice. Or, you could be an engineer with Rocsys, a robotic charger company. The list goes on!
Furthermore, you don’t have to be an expert to get a job in this field.
Alison Wiley 21:42
But seriously, a whole lot of people that are being hired into the field, they don't necessarily have background in electrified transportation. However, if you're a person who can learn quickly and, I would say network. And I think that a job applicant, you need to show that you have navigated projects, that you've taken initiative, that you've done problem solving, that you've worked with possibly people or organizations that are change averse. If you can show that you brought projects in on time and on budget it’s a show of competence.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 22:26
You might be thinking, yeah right. But remember, just a few years ago, Gilbert knew nothing about electric school buses. That didn’t stop him.
Today, Gilbert is making headlines. At his new job with Modesto City School District, he’s ordered the largest ever single order for electric school buses in the country. He plans to get these 30 buses up and running even faster than before. And these buses are just one piece of an ambitious sustainability plan at the district.
Beyond the benefits to the kids and the atmosphere, he has an economic incentive to hurry. With fuel prices the way they are, the new buses should save the district a quarter of a million dollars every year.
In the first episode in this season, Ryan Pancharadsam co-author of the book, Speed & Scale, laid out the areas where we need to reduce emissions the fastest in order to have a prayer of reaching Net Zero. If we do it right, electrifying transportation will reduce emissions by 6 gigatons a year.
So why focus so much on electric school buses?
For a few good reasons. First, as a public fleet, federal and state governments can help fund the transition.
Second, school buses are, well, they’re pretty public. They affect our kids. And so they’re a kind of tipping point. Experts say electrifying buses can help spark the electric transit revolution.
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 24:02
Trucking. Trucks that go across the country, that's a high pollutant area in everything that we do. And they've actually kind of tested it out by using rapid transit buses first or school buses first. And then later on, you've gotta kind of transfer that too of how do the big manufacturers do it? I think like anything else, you know, the Biden administration has provided this funding and if you fund it, it will come. And now we've gotta make, we've gotta make the inroads. Because the money's available, we have to be -- do good stewards and show that there are, are definite ways to make that money a worthwhile effort of what we've done.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 24:37
And build momentum for bigger projects -- like decarbonizing entire schools and cities. At Modesto City, Gilbert’s getting battery powered landscaping equipment, solar-powered classrooms and green job training for students.
But as Gilbert experienced, there will be skeptics along the way.
It’s one thing to have skills as an engineer, or a project manager, or an HVAC technician. But it’s entirely another to have the diplomacy – and the thick skin – to keep trying again and again when people say – we don’t do it that way around here. And I learned something from Gilbert…something about standing up in the face of cynicism, and finding ways around, and through, when the “no’s” outweigh the “yes’s.”
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 25:29
I've been told no, a number of times. Some of my contractor buddies are going like, that can't happen. And I'm like, well, we gotta find out how it happens. You know, we have to turn the frown upside down and find a way.
And if you're, if you're telling me things like, ‘No, this won't.’ Tell me why it won't. And then let's chip away at the Why it won't. You know a lot of this -- a lot of times there's some uncertainty out there in the world and there's a lot of negative sayers, even about green career paths and green energy. I think we just have to let that go like water off our back. I think we have to pursue those things that we know and surround ourselves with people that are encouraging, that do help, and that do find a way. You know, I'd rather soar with eagles than hang around on the ground with turkeys.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 26:11
Don’t take no for an answer. The planet needs you to say YES.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 26:25
And now it’s time for our Ask Yesh segment. Where I answer your green job search questions.
A listener recently sent me a message on Twitter. Here’s what they wrote:
Hey Yesh! I noticed that the new climate legislation includes almost $30 billion dollars for a “green bank” that will finance cleantech like solar farms and electric vehicles. I don’t have a finance degree, but I love the idea of helping to invest in cleantech like this. Do I need to get a finance degree? (Please tell me NO!) With a liberal arts degree, what jobs could I get at a green bank?
Well, listener, first of all thank you for reaching out. It’s great to hear from you.
And whenever anyone asks me this kind of a question I always say no, without hesitation. Because think about it! Every business needs people with diverse skills! Green banks are a movement in their own right and need all kinds of folks to ensure their success.
It’s a really exciting time to be in this field. Here are a few proof points:
At the time I’m recording this, there is a role at the Colorado Clean Energy Fund for a Marketing and Community Manager. It pays $75-85K/year -- that’s a great salary -- and is approved to be remote. Bonus! This role requires someone to be a great communicator and tell the fund’s story, and manage strategic relationships. No math is required for this role.
Green banks need communicators for sure. But they also need HR specialists, operations experts, project managers, analysts and policy experts! Anyone can play a role if they’re motivated to contribute.
And if this is you, get networking! Talk to people who have the jobs you want and figure out what opportunities are. And don’t just look locally. With so many organizations hiring remote workers, like the example I shared, you can really have a lot of options.
And another proof point. An alum of the Climate Corps program was recently promoted to be the VP of a major east coast Green Bank. They got their BA in Environmental Science and minor in Art. And then went on to climb in their career, through work and internship experience. Eventually they decided to get their MBA, giving them the finance experience they needed. But they did not start out their environmental career with a finance background. It took learning through experiences, networking, and trial and error to figure out their path.
I hope this helps!
Do you have a green job search question? Reach out to me on Twitter at Yesh Says. You can send me a message or use the hashtag Ask Yesh. I’m here to help.
Yesh Pavlik Slenk 29:12
And that's all for this episode of Degrees.
Make sure to listen and follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, or wherever you're listening now. And share this podcast with a friend so you can both tune in each week and hear how you and your communities can collectively help fight climate change. And learn where the jobs are and how you can make a difference.
Next on Degrees, we talk with a woman leading a multi-billion dollar effort to remove gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere…forever.
Until then, check out our Green Jobs Hub to find all the resources to jumpstart your green job career search.
Degrees is presented by Environmental Defense Fund. Amy Morse is our producer. Podcast Allies is our production company. Tressa Versteeg and Elaine Grant worked on this episode. Rye Taylor is our audio engineer.
Our theme music is the song Shame, Shame, Shame by Lake Street Dive. And I’m your host, Yesh Pavlik Slenk. But the foundation of the show, my friends, is you. Stay fired up y’all.
Special thanks to all the folks we talked to for research on this episode: Alison Wiley with the Electric School Bus Newsletter, everyone at the Women for the Advancement of School Bus Electrification, Molly Rauche with Moms Clean Air Force, and Masavi Perea with Chispas Arizona chapter.
Change is coming, oh yeah
Ain’t no holding it back
Ain't no running
Change is coming, oh yeah!
Gilbert Blue Feather Rosas 30:54
The kids don't know about gravity. Don't tell 'em about gravity. They can go flip in the air and do all kinds of crazy things on skateboards and bicycles. And they are the dreamers. So we have to encourage that, but I wanna point them towards sustainability because that's where they can help us the most.
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