A Myriad of Choices with Clean Fuel Choices

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” That has applications not only when deciding on a new school bus fuel, but also when considering opportunities like the $2.925 billion available in the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund Settlement that rewards clean fuel choices.

There’s no denying that the Volkswagen funding presents “such a great opportunity for school buses right now,” declared Brianna Lawrence, a senior associate with grant consultant Gladstein, Neandross & Associates, during a panel on school bus emissions reduction funding at the STN EXPO in July.

As of mid-August, she explained, 40 states had released draft plans for what they propose to do with their share of the VW funds, with nearly 75 percent of those states dedicating 25 percent or more to school buses. By this fall, some states will begin receiving part of their funding, which could take up to 10 years to disburse.

Every state is different in how it is handling the distribution of its VW funding, confirmed Joe Annotti, GNA’s vice president of programs, during an April 2018 STN webinar. Although one of the U.S. EPA’s specifications for funding is that all-electric school buses may receive more funding than for new diesel or alternative fuels, different alt-fuels have better chances in some states than in others.

For example, the money allotted to California and New York is planned to focus on electric school buses for disadvantaged or low-income environmental justice communities, defined by EPA as “disproportionately burdened by environmental harms and risks.”

Illinois set aside up to 10 percent of its share, about $11 million, to replace diesel school buses with electric vehicles. Arkansas is dedicating 54 percent of its $14.6 million to CNG school buses, while Delaware is using over $3.2 million for its Propane School Bus Replacement Project.

Other states are focusing on replacing buses rather than on specific fuels. Arizona is providing up to $38 million to replace diesel school buses in low-income communities. Oregon is replacing over 450 model-year 2006 and 2007 diesel school buses with clean diesel, CNG, gasoline or propane.

Maine is funding up to 80 percent of new purchases or retrofit projects, as long as they are electric or another alternative fuel. Missouri is using $12 to $18 million to replace aging school bus fleets.

All of this money on the table is forcing school districts and their transportation departments to consider alternative fuels, if they haven’t before. Fortunately, districts have options and support as they consider whether to switch to an alternative clean fuel, and address related infrastructure and fuel supply concerns, or opt for a plug-and-play fuel that can easily replace traditional diesel.

Propane is already on its way to becoming a staple in the school bus industry, according to the Propane Education & Research Council, which reported that new vehicle registrations were up by over 700 percent over the last five years. ROUSH CleanTech President Todd Mouw predicted in June that propane would become the “lead horse” for school bus fuel over the next decade, with natural gas coming in second and electric quickly rising in use.
CNG adoption remains strong, with over 5,500 such school buses in use throughout the U.S., according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Currently, there are fewer than 200 electric school buses on the road, provided by The Lion Electric Co., Starcraft and Trans Tech. Blue Bird began taking orders for its Type C and D electrics in April. Thomas Built Buses introduced its concept “Jouley” last October, while the IC Bus concept “chargE” is on tour.

Meritor CEO Jay Craig said at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo earlier this year that the company’s internal research indicated that up to 60 percent of newly manufactured school buses could be electrified by 2025, though other estimates say it could be half that number. Commercial vehicle analyst ACT Research Co. (unaffiliated with the ACT Expo) predicted that up to four percent of all school buses produced in 2019 could be electric.

Meanwhile, IC Bus introduced a gasoline school bus last June, although that market has been dominated by Blue Bird, which delivered its 2,500th gasoline-powered Vision in April.

Biodiesel and renewable diesel are also rising in popularity, although distribution remains a challenge that is faced by student transporters looking to use either of these.

Another notable fact is that the VW Settlement offers student transporters benefits beyond monetary savings and a cleaner environment. An STN survey administered in July 2018 found that one-fourth of the respondents planning to use VW monies for new school buses also planned to add extra safety equipment or technology on those buses, such as fire suppression or seat belts.