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Propane Compared, Contrasted With Electric for School Bus Operations

Transportation directors with experience running propane school buses shared how the fuel choice was the best option for their operations when compared to electric.

Blue Bird, IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses all offer propane school buses. There are about 22,000 currently on the road and used by a thousand districts and bus contractors to transport about 1.2 million students per day, explained Stephen Whaley, director of autogas business development for the Propane Education Research Council.

During a virtual Green Bus Summit session on April 21, he stressed that districts can reduce more emissions if they use propane autogas rather than diesel or electric power. Compared to electric, he said, propane buses are less expensive to purchase and operators can put more of them on the road for the price of one electric bus – while also considering infrastructure costs, vehicle life, among other factors. Thus, propane is better overall for emissions reduction, Whaley opined.

“The important thing is to get rid of as many old diesels as possible,” he commented.

He added that EVs are responsible for often-overlooked carbon emissions, such as from battery production, poor charging techniques, and fuel consumption for heating the bus.

Real-Life Experience 

In a panel discussion that same day, Whaley asked three transportation directors why they chose propane for their fleets. They also described the success they are having.

Transportation Director Steve Lake at Southwest Allen County Schools said that 12 to 13 percent of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, school district’s fleet is currently comprised of propane buses.

“Everything was heading in that clean alt-fuel direction,” he commented.

The district has considered electric but decided that propane was a better fit for its operations. Lake added that he saw propane fuel grants as more sustainable than for electric buses.

One of the main reasons Southwest Allen chose propane was cost, Lake shared. Additionally, he relayed that his technicians like the fuel choice because maintenance is easier than with diesel buses.

“We owe it to our taxpayers to be the most efficient system we can be,” Lake stated.

Getting to know the local propane dealer and securing assistance with infrastructure setup is key to making the endeavor a win-win for the community and the district, he said.

Three transportation directors joined PERC during an April 21, 2021 Green Bus Summit session to share their experience with propane in their school bus operations.

Nicholas Kraynak, coordinator of transportation for North Penn School District in Pennsylvania, said that the district started adding propane to its fleet of 115 buses in 2019 because it needed to replenish buses, be environmentally friendly and save money.

He related that the district decided electric buses were cost prohibitive. Plus, EV range would not work for their district size, since buses log 200 to300 miles per day, Kraynak said.

The process involved creating a partnership with the local propane dealer and bus dealer to obtain information for the school board. He said that once district administration saw the savings, the decision to go to propane was a “no-brainer.”

Grants were used to secure the propane buses, and Kraynak reported that the technicians found maintenance to be cheaper, due to fewer parts than diesel.

Related: Propane Council CEO Makes Case for Green School Buses at Summit
Related: Selecting the Fuel that Makes Cents for You: Propane
Related: South Carolina Invests in 235 New Propane School Buses
Related: (Recorded Webinar) Propane Autogas: The Right Fuel for Your Fleet of School Buses
Related: (STN Podcast E60) Green School Bus Buzz: LIVE From the Green Bus Summit

Most of the 55 buses at West Fargo Public Schools in North Dakota, meanwhile, are currently diesel. But Transportation Director Brad Redmond explained that the plan is to “go big” this fall and convert half the fleet to propane.

The district is trying out one EV, which Redmond reported is inexpensive to run but has range issues. It is a new technology and therefore comes with issues like the high cost of charging in winter, he mused.

The money the district will be saving on fuel and maintenance for the propane buses is going to add up, he noted.

He advised districts planning for propane to do their homework and account for infrastructure and related costs. One strategy is buying propane in the summer when it’s cheaper.

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