HomeBlogsIt’s a Gas! School Districts Look to Alt-Fuel Buses

It’s a Gas! School Districts Look to Alt-Fuel Buses

Officials at KIPP Jacksonville Schools did not set out to establish two major milestones in student transportation this school year. They just wanted an efficient, cost-effective means of transporting the charter school’s growing student population.

After seeking the counsel of their local Blue Bird dealer, Transportation Manager Bobby Kennedy decided to purchase 14 new school buses for the school’s inaugural bus fleet that is 100-percent propane, making KIPP the first charter school in the U.S. with this distinction.

Catherine Cecere, KIPP senior manager of operations, said a series of factors convinced the charter school to launch its own fleet of propane buses. She said the team wanted the experience to be a positive one for students and parents but also wanted an economical, environmentally friendly option.

Cecere and Kennedy met with their local Blue Bird dealer and first began comparing alt-fuel options. They pored over pages and pages of information and the pros and cons of different fuel types. “It was a combination of factors that made us choose propane,” she said. “Propane sounded like the most affordable and environmentally safe and clean way to run our buses.“

Kennedy said he has a strong preference for propane buses because of their performance on the road. “There is less lag in acceleration than diesel and they run quieter,” he said. “They warm up really quick during the winter and there is no excessive heat by the drivers feet with propane.”

Kennedy added that KIPP is already saving money via lower fuel and maintenance costs and has a propane tank onsite where drivers are trained to refuel their buses. The district began with two buses in 2010 and has added two or three buses each year since.

KIPP Jacksonville is indicative of a movement that is slowly gaining momentum nationwide, fueled by federal and state grants to offset the incremental purchase price of new buses that boast not only lower emissions than that of traditional diesel but also reduced maintenance requirement.

Research recently released by the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) claims that more than 700,000 students in 47 states ride a propane autogas bus to school. PERC said more than 12,000 propane autogas school buses were operating in public and private school districts in the U.S. at the start of this school year.

A trend within the trend is that most of those districts who use alternative fuels prefer propane. The leading fuel of choice overall, however, overwhelmingly remains diesel. The results of a recent magazine survey indicates as much. With 170 responses, 132 districts or nearly 78 percent said they do not currently use alternative fuel buses, while 38 districts or slightly more than 22 percent said they do.

Two-thirds of readers who said they use alternative fuel buses listed propane as their alternative fuel of choice, with 27 percent preferring CNG. A smattering of districts reported using both propane and CNG.

Another 5 percent use electric buses, an alternative that is projected to start becoming a viable choice nationwide a decade from now. New York State is attempting to accelerate that timeline as it recently added Type-A electric buses to the state bid.

Propane: The Trend Within the Trend

The Kyrene School District, which straddles parts of Phoenix, Tempe and Chandler, Arizona, is a prime example of national embrace of propane. Transportation Director Eric Nethercutt said 110 of the district’s 130 buses are propane. The rests are diesel. He said the change was by design to replace an aging diesel fleet.

“I’ve converted almost our entire bus fleet to propane and we did it for multiple reasons,” he explained. “At the time, we wanted to upgrade our fleet we looked at rising diesel prices plus the cost of cleaning up the emissions. We wanted to look at something other than diesel.”

Nethercutt said the district compared CNG and propane and determined that the former was too expensive to implement. “When we began the process, the price of propane was about a dollar less a gallon than diesel and it was considered a clean fuel by the federal government, so its storage was not regulated like diesel,” Nethercutt explained. “It also reduced our carbon footprint.”

Nethercutt added that the district is paying about 79 cents a gallon for propane, about a dollar less than diesel. “Plus, the feds give us a 36-cent per gallon rebate as an incentive to use clean fuel,” he said. “That puts us at about 43 cents per gallon, and that’s hard to pass up.” Nethercutt estimated that the district buses travel about 1.4 million miles per year.

Propane-fueled school buses are also making a comeback in South Carolina. The South Carolina Department of Education recently purchased 26 Blue Bird Propane Visions for two local districts, the first such school buses in the state since the 1980s. “We felt that we needed to perform a pilot on alternative fuels and currently propane seems to be the leader in the category,” said Mike Bullman, maintenance director for the South Carolina DOE. “Our plan currently is to closely evaluate the alternative buses that we have in operation and make a decision based on the evaluation that will best serve the students.”

Bullman added that the DOE will make the final decision on adding addition alternative-fuel buses based on a number of key factors such as overall performance, fuel economy, cost of operation, initial cost, and long-term reliability.

The CNG Alternative

Herb Jensen, director of transportation for the Jordan School District in West Jordan, Utah, has been using CNG for 20 years, since before he led the department and the fuel gained in popularity outside of California. He said his 75 CNG buses have paid unexpected dividends for an overall fleet of 247. With one million total miles traveled each year, Jensen said the low cost of CNG is equating to an overall fleet savings of 25 cents per mile.

“We could see the technology had great promise and we could affect the environment in a positive way,” Jensen said. “What we didn’t pay much attention to was how much money it would save us. We started out to be environmentally responsible, not we have our own CNG compressor and we’re spending between 50 cents and a dollar per gallon.”

Jensen agreed that CNG can be expensive at the outset because of the cost of the infrastructure, the limited availability of fueling stations and the incremental purchase price. He said CNG buses cost about $28,000 more than a diesel bus. “There are plenty of grants to deal with that,” he said. “Over the past five or six years, we’ve received more than $1 million in federal and state grants.”

Grants are what enabled officials in the Blue Springs, Missouri, School District to pay for CNG infrastructure when the high cost of diesel forced the district to look at alternatives for replacing its aging fleet. Assistant Superintendent Bill Cowling said the transition was an extremely detailed process that started four years ago.

Santa Monica also operates gasoline and diesel buses in a fleet of 25.

Abramson said the CNG buses are costly because their fuel tanks expire after 15 years and must be replaced at a cost of $20,000 per bus. He said CNG is difficult to obtain and there are no local propane fueling stations. He is also underwhelmed with CNG performance.

“They don’t handle the hills very well and they get poor mileage,” he said. “I have the newer models and they’re not much better. Wherever we go, I have to call ahead to make sure that if there is a CNG pump, that it is working.”

He added the CNG maintenance costs more because of the sensors and filters.

Jill Gayaldo, transportation director for the Elk Grove Unified School District in northern California has used CNG buses since the late 1980s, but she said the district is phasing them out because of the cost and availability of the fuel. “CNG buses have been workhorses, but the cost of the fueling stations are just too expensive and fueling stations are limited,” she said, adding that any local fueling stations are often inoperable.

She also lamented the need replace the CNG fuel tanks on the buses. “I have six buses with expired fuel tanks that are out of service,” she said. “I’m looking at a bill of $120,000. My local air district has been helping us out and they might now, but meanwhile they are parked.”

Silicon Valley Start-Up

Since the early 1990s, CNG buses comprised half the 103-bus fleet for the San Jose Unified School District. This district recently parted ways with its CNG buses and replaced them with emissions. Renewable diesel can also be stored underground. “We did not have to change our storage tanks, fuel pumps and dispenser and we made no modifications to the buses,” he said.“Traditional diesel tends to deteriorate fuel lines and that does not happen with renewable diesel.”

He said the district might have considered switching to propane but the CNG buses were still in use and that would have required constructing a third fueling station. “We would have had to decide which system to have parts for and we would have had to train our personnel on a third system,’ he said. “We wanted to simplify training and storage.”

Charging into the Future

At the recent IC Bus Summit in Chicago, Julie Furber, executive director for product management and innovation for Cummins, Inc., predicted that in a decade school buses powered by electricity will start to become a viable option. California is so far the leader in electric because of the state’s aggressive grant funding, but states like Massachusetts are gaining ground.

The Concord School District outside of Boston is currently using an electric conventional school bus purchased in October from Lion Bus. Concord is one of four local school districts to receive a $350,000 grant from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources to purchase the 71-passenger eLion and its related charging equipment.

John Flaherty, deputy superintendent of finance and operations, said the battery pack the district specified gives the bus a range of 75 miles on one charge. The bus is used for home-to-school travel only. He said the district requested a lift so its

wheelchair-bound students could avoid breathing diesel fumes.

He added that while the district purchased the bus, the state of Massachusetts is viewing it as a pilot project in two regards. The state is interested in how the bus performs and it want to determine how the large battery storage can return solar generated electricity back to the power grid.

“So far, so good,” regarding performance, Flaherty said. “It’s got good power and good handling,” he continued. “All the feedback from our transportation staff has been positive.” Flaherty said he was particularly struck by how quiet the bus is. “From zero to 20 mph, it’s so quiet they have to play a jingle to let people know that a bus is coming.”

Back at Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento, California, the district is also awaiting delivery of 10 electric buses from Lion Bus in July. “We really excited about it,” said Gayaldo. “We know there will be some challenges, but the only way to get the bugs out is to get them on the road to see what works well and what doesn’t.”

Gayaldo said she will only run the buses 65 miles before recharging and will not use them for field trips. “These buses won’t be able to go long distances, but when you consider zero emissions, (lap-shoulder) seat belts and a brand-new bus, it will bring a lot to our community.”

Gayaldo said the buses will be tested. “The only way we’ll know their limits is to test them,” she said. “Everyone tells you what they can do, but it’s the reality that counts. We’ll see what they can do when the bus is full of kids and the air conditioning is running. We don’t have too many hills but we do have issues. We are a year-round district so I think we’re a perfect proving ground.”

Where does Gasoline fit in?

South Carolina’s Mike Bullman said he sees the trend toward alternative fuels continuing. While propane is currently the alternative fuel of choice, he said he believes fleets will soon begin implementing more gasoline-powered buses into service. “It may sound strange to refer to gasoline as an alternative fuel, but consider the majority of the Type C and D school buses built in the past 25 years were diesel-powered. So anything other than diesel should be considered alternative.”

Bullman said some advantages gasoline has over diesel include lower initial costs, slightly lower emissions, quieter operating environment, and overall fewer maintenance cost. “When I started in the business, all school buses were powered by gasoline,” he said. “Now almost 37 years later, that may once again be the fuel of choice to power America’s school buses.”

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the April 2017 issue of School Transportation News magazine.

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