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The Great Divide on Going Green

Some things take time. Whether it be the acceptance of the newest technological widget that promises to make your life easier or a new way to fuel your fleet, opinions can be hard to sway. 

In the past few years, the push to “go green” has been initiated on every front, and the school bus industry is no stranger to its message. But amid high costs, budget shortfalls and questions about the benefits of alternative fuels, is it sinking in?

From the Top, Down

To fully benefit from this message, acceptance has to come from every level — from the federal government down to local transportation departments. In April, Rep. Dan Boren (D-OK) introduced the New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solutions Act of 2009. The NAT GAS Act, as it has been referred to, utilizes various tax credits to create incentives for the expanded use of natural gas fueled vehicles (NGVs) and related infrastructure. In other words, organizations that employ buses can utilize the tax credits first hand for the purchase of NGVs. Those that have their own facilities can also benefit from the refueling property credit as well as the vehicle fuel credit. For municipalities or similar entities that are tax exempt, the legislation provides the opportunity to transfer those benefits through a partnership that creates a commodity they could then use to leverage the cost of improving their fleets.

“In this way, the tax incentives themselves would become a tradable commodity,” said Rep. Boren. “I am attempting to take real steps in moving our nation in another direction by utilizing our domestic resources.”

But, good intentions still need a little help to become something more tangible. Technology has made the crossover to alternative fuels a little easier and a little cheaper for school districts, but there’s still a ways to go, according to some transportation directors.

“Alternative fuels do not produce the cost savings or the benefit to the environment that has been advertised,” said Darin Bracy, transportation manager for Virginia’s Hopewell City Schools, located south or Richmond.

Bracy pointed to problems with biodiesel in cold climates and the high initial costs of hybrid, the cost of Lithium-ion battery replacements and fuel savings that are offset by the cost of battery disposal.

“The current administration is not concerned with these problems and has ignored many facts about these decisions and will continue on this course of action no matter the outcome,” he added. “The best case is to increase supplies until technology catches up with the current methods, a policy that is not popular with the current administration or the former.”

Bracy is not the only one who is wary of jumping on the green bandwagon. Ted Carlson, director of transportation at Mount Pleasant, Mich., Public Schools, is a self-labeled environmentalist. But he is worried about the current trends surrounding ethanol and said he believes the feds are headed in the wrong direction.

“We need hydrogen technology, period,” said Carlson, adding that he also sees the increasing emission reductions regulations as the straw that will break the camel’s back. “We already have only a few engine options in my industry, and I think it will just get worse.”

According to “Fuel Cell School Buses: Report to Congress,” a report released this spring by the U.S. Department of Energy, considerable hurdles must be overcome in terms of cost and durability before hydrogen fuel cells are ready for the school bus market. The technology was left off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS-2), which said that other biomass fuels are better alternatives for weening the nation off its dependence on foreign oil over the next two decades.

An Electric Issue

A main provision of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which at this writing was working its way through the House of Representatives, is the development of electric vehicle infrastructure. Introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), it calls for electric utilities to develop a plan to support the use of plug-in electric drive vehicles and to provide charging stations in public and private locations, including street parking, parking garages, parking lots, homes, gas stations, and public rest stops.While electric school buses are available to the market, and there are plans for new releases in the coming months and years, not all are entirely sold on the technology.

“The current hybrid offering starts at, I believe, 5 mpg, and then brings it up to 8 mpg, whereas diesel already gets 12 to 16 mpg,” said Steve Girardin, president of Type A manufacturer Girardin-Minibus. “And with the new technologies currently offered on diesels, some people are promoting that the new diesels actually clean the air. We question that very seriously. Is the gas engine in a hybrid model the optimal solution moving forward? We question the complete environmental footprint of a hybrid. There seems to be a lot of controversy, the cost of making batteries and other components.”But with time comes advances in technology and, perhaps, money to pay for it.

“As demand by consumers increases for plug-in hybrids, electric or other alternative fuel vehicles — and for more public transportation, like school buses — federal and state governments will respond with policies that support these alternatives,” said NASDPTS President Charlie Hood. “The challenge for student transporters is to ensure that policymakers understand that modern school buses are already very clean and that they are the greener alternative to the multiple individual cars that each bus displaces on the road each morning and afternoon.”

Running on Fumes

With the possible passage of the NAT GAS Act, compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles can help give a school district the positive attention it needs to show residents they are doing everything they can to provide their students a healthy environment in which to learn. They can also give a transportation department’s budget some much needed breathing room.

“We like CNG a lot because, here in Oklahoma, my CNG cost is under a buck a gallon equivalent,” said Doug Charette, the fleet operations manager for Tulsa Public Schools.

Fifteen years ago, Tulsa had the largest CNG fleet in the country, but a lack of parts to keep the systems going led to a change back to diesel. With the fueling infrastructure still in place, Charette and his team kept their eyes open for a more viable solution. In 2006, that answer came from a company called Emissions Solutions Inc.

Instead of buying all-new CNG buses, Charette is receiving re-engineered, spark-ignited, CNG-dedicated engines and replacing his diesel buses. The swap saved money over buying new buses and kept his fueling costs down.

“We lower the compression, drill spark plug holes in the head, provide brand-new pistons, rings and the like — everything diesel is stripped off,” said Jim Cole, vice president of sales and marketing and one of the five founders of Emissions Solutions Inc.

The engines are 2010 certified, have lower maintenance costs and drop the overall weight of the vehicle by about 300 pounds, even with the addition of the CNG tanks. The system runs on a three-way passive catalytic converter.

But, like history has proven time and again, people can fear change. When Clare Atkins, director of operations, maintenance and transportation for San Joaquin County, Calif., Schools, was first offered CNG buses, she was wary of them.

“Now that we have them, I wouldn’t go back,” she said. “They are clean and the upkeep is the same,” said Atkins. “I think it’s the fear of the unknown.”

Die-Hard Diesel

With past and future emission reductions for diesel engines, those not ready to make the jump to the alternatives can still wear a green badge of honor while also keeping an open mind.

“Given the difference in today’s cost from an alternatively powered school bus and a ‘clean’ diesel engine, I will continue to purchase diesel engine buses and investigate alternative fueled buses if grant funding is awarded to the district,” said David Pace, director of transportation services for Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Some believe the sudden spike in interest in alternative fuels peaked last summer when fuel prices made a massive jump, and that it’s now the federal government’s job to find better solutions. Despite diesel fuel demand that remains 8- to 9 percent behind last year at this time, the cost has jumped in recent months.

“The unstable cost of fuel in conjunction with the added EPA regulations make people search for alternatives to stabilize budgets,” said Duane Campanello, director of transportation for the Arc of Carroll County. “I would hope that the federal government put a greater emphasis on the exploration on alternatives for the industry rather than burden the public, school systems and contractors with cost restrictive regulations.”

No matter the choice, there are pros and cons to every alternative, no matter what form it comes in.

“I believe a better solution is more efficient vehicles for the fuels we have, because each fuel has its own set of environmental and/or economic problems,” said Charles Scriber, transportation director for Mountain Home, Ark., School District.

Reprinted from the July 2009 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.

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