Each year, the number of school districts that are prioritizing student health and environmental impact by transitioning to alternative fuel school buses is growing. In many instances, districts that decide to move away from dirty diesel buses come down to a decision between propane autogas and electric. And time and again, districts that do their homework are coming to the same solution.
Most recently, at a Wilson School District board meeting in Pennsylvania, district officials voted to purchase seven new propane autogas buses. During the meeting, one member of the board discussed the possibility of purchasing electric buses instead. While the school board member had good intentions in mind, the district had already kicked the tires on many fuel options and came to the same conclusion: propane autogas.
Most notably, district superintendent Richard Faidley said that while there are some benefits to electric, there are also major drawbacks, especially in the northeast. He said electric buses “failed miserably” in colder climates not only on range, but on charge time, too. He also noted that battery replacements every six years would cost taxpayers an additional $100,000 per bus. And since electric buses can cost three times as much as propane buses, the costs outweigh the benefits.
Wilson’s transportation director, Randy S. Williams Sr., put it best, “At the end of the day, the cost of ownership of a propane bus is the cheaper of the costs.”
This isn’t the first school district to go through this same process. In recent years, Minneapolis Public Schools researched the possibility of adding electric vehicles to its fleet. After a thorough investigation, the transportation department instead opted for propane autogas buses.
In Manchester, New Hampshire, a similar story played out earlier this year. After officials researched both propane and electric school buses, officials chose to use Volkswagen settlement dollars to purchase propane autogas buses. In fact, on a webinar earlier this year, New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services said no one applied to use available Volkswagen settlement funds for electric school buses in the first round of grants.
Why is it that all of these districts are choosing propane autogas over electric? It comes down to several factors, including infrastructure costs and the performance of the vehicles.
What Are the Upfront Costs?
The average cost of a propane autogas bus is significantly less than an electric bus. Propane buses cost about $96,000, while an electric bus costs between $310,000 and $375,000. And that’s just the start. The cost to install refueling infrastructure for 10 propane autogas vehicles with a single 1,000- to 2,000-gallon tank is up to $60,000, including as much as $36,000 for site preparation and equipment, and up to $24,000 for installation.
In comparison, the cost to set up recharging infrastructure for 10 electric vehicles with five level 3 fast EV chargers is up to $480,000, including as much as $200,000 for site prep and equipment, and up to $280,000 for installation. Unlike propane autogas infrastructure, electric infrastructure will most likely have additional costs for items like electric sub-panels, added amperage to power multiple stations, and upgrading and replacing incoming power lines.
What Additional Costs Might a Fleet Incur?
As with any alternative fuel, there are additional costs associated with more than just the infrastructure. There’s also the refueling/recharging costs themselves. Propane autogas refueling costs are stable throughout the year, and fleet managers can secure lower prices by securing a fuel contract with a propane supplier. Electricity costs vary throughout the day and can increase if the demand for power exceeds a station’s capabilities.
When you factor in the cost of a new vehicle, regardless of energy source and the costs for fuel, fluids, maintenance, and repairs over the lifetime of the vehicle, propane autogas has the lowest cost of any energy source.
What is the Range on a Single Refuel or Recharge?
An electric bus has a full driving range of about 120 miles on a single charge, which is fine if the fleet is planned for short runs with little variation in its use. Bear in mind that operating any electric feature while the vehicle is in use can diminish the driving range. This includes heat, air conditioning, windshield wipers, and the radio. In colder climates, this range will be adversely impacted.
Propane autogas vehicles can provide a range of more than 400 miles on a single fill that takes less than 10 minutes, regardless of the weather.
What is the Emissions Profile?
Thanks to emerging technology, propane autogas is delivering near-zero emissions for its customers. Ultra-low NOx propane engines are 90 percent cleaner than current standards mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And according to a real-world study from West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels Engines and Emissions, propane autogas school buses reduced NOx emissions by 96 percent compared to the best in class clean diesel bus.
In recent years, electric vehicles’ popularity has increased because the technology is perceived as clean and green with zero emissions. However, it’s important to note that emissions are created by the source of electric power generation or the fleet owner’s choice for required auxiliary heating options and should be included in the comparisons.
While both options exceed EPA mandated tailpipe emissions levels, there are some differences in emissions throughout the full emissions cycle of the vehicles. Propane autogas can emit up to 45 percent less particulate matter than electric vehicles from well-to-wheels.
Is the Energy Source Currently Available?
While the production of electric vehicles and infrastructure is growing, the current availability of the technology is leaving fleets in the dark. In some cases, the technology is still in developmental stages, and many school districts noted they weren’t ready to commit to something that was still emerging.
Unlike electric vehicles, propane autogas vehicles have already proven themselves and are readily available. Engine vehicle technology innovation has ramped up in the last decade and is currently providing fleets with reliable performance.
By keeping these considerations in mind and making fact-based comparisons, school districts are more likely to make an informed and educated decision on the best alternative energy source for their needs. More often than not, they’ll find that’s propane autogas.
Learn more about the benefits of propane-powered school buses.
As an additional incentive, starting in May 2022, school districts will be able to apply for funding from the EPA’s new Clean School Bus Program. Over the next five years, the program will provide five billion dollars to replace existing school buses with clean and zero-emission models, including propane-powered buses. Read more.