HomeGreen BusTransportation Veteran Won’t Give Up Fight for More Alt-Fuel School Buses

Transportation Veteran Won’t Give Up Fight for More Alt-Fuel School Buses

Another industry veteran is officially retiring, yet like so many others with decades of experience in student transportation, John Clements plans to hold onto his passion — alternative fuel-powered school buses.

While the alt-fuel pioneer officially retired May 20 from his longtime post as transportation director for Kings Canyon Unified School District, located east of Fresno, Calif., he told STN he is still working closely with Motiv Power Systems to see through the development of a new electric school bus. He said they expect to have two units delivered at the NAPT Summit this fall.

Starting out as a school bus driver in Reedley, Calif., at age 18, Clements worked his way up to the directorship the old-fashioned way, but nothing else about his approach would be defined in those terms. For decades, he has pushed for replacing polluting school buses with lower-emissions alternatives powered by propane, natural gas, electric power and clean diesel. Now he is well known as an expert in clean-air funding opportunities, alternative fuels and advanced technology vehicles.

In our exclusive interview with Clements, he expounds on everything from the role of computers in student transportation departments to the importance of training and education, to “greening” fleets without spending a lot of green.

School Transportation News: What are two key ways the school transportation business has changed in the past 39 years?

Clements: First, computerization: When I started, all of the transportation records (time sheets, driver records, bus route and trip mileage, bus shop records) and documents were kept on paper. When I left my office, I had five computers: one for compressed natural gas (CNG) station transactions, one for GPS, one desktop, one laptop and one tablet, and a cell phone with e-mail communications/Internet capabilities. Today the shop technicians have desktop stations for vehicle maintenance records and parts/labor billing. They also have at least five laptops for engine and bus diagnosis. 

Second, alternative fuels: When I started as a school bus driver with Kings Canyon Unified in 1974, most of the school bus fleet was gasoline powered. We had 40 school buses in the fleet, and only nine were diesel. Today the district has 70 school buses, with 25 CNG powered, five new clean-diesel electric hybrid and the remaining are cleaner low-sulfur diesels with OEM or retrofit particulate filtered school buses. The exception is that Kings Canyon Unified has 15 older school buses (1986 through 1993) that cannot meet the CARB Truck and Bus Fleet rules as no particulate filter retrofits are available. Replacement funding is continually searched for to achieve these bus replacements.

STN: What are some of the lessons learned that you can share with other transportation directors or school bus workers?

Clements: Your greatest asset is the people who work with you, your staff. Provide them with the right tools and training, whether it is safe and reliable school buses for your drivers or the proper tools and necessary parts to maintain those school buses. The transportation staff at Kings Canyon Unified safely transported nearly 5,000 students — or half of our district’s average daily attendance — each and every school day through all kinds of terrain and weather conditions. The director does not perform this task alone; it takes a whole team of staff who has the right equipment and tools, who are empowered to perform their individual tasks.

Build good relationships with your business community and with allied agencies.

Get an education and remain a lifelong learner throughout your career. It is not enough to be a dedicated employee putting in the long hours that directing a transportation department requires. Invest in yourself. Obtain a university degree. I stopped and started college six times in my first 34 years before completing my master’s degree in leadership and organizational studies from Fresno Pacific University.

clements etransSTN: When did you become interested in alternative fuels/power for school buses?

Clements: I became interested in alternative fuels school buses in 1991 when I saw neighboring Central Valley school districts receive brand-new, clean air, lower emissions diesel-, CNG- and methanol-fueled school buses from a demonstration grant (AB 35 by former Assemblyman Richard Katz) from the California Energy Commission. I was approached by a district administrator of resources who requested my help in applying for the next phase of this funding, and in 1993 we were awarded three M85 methanol-powered and three advanced-diesel school buses.

Since this initial start, we have replaced 45 district school buses and added 12 more clean air school buses in our fleet. We have added CNG white fleet school support vehicles and soon will replace older, grossly polluting school AG Farm tractors with clean-burning diesel tractors for expansion of our high school student farm education program.

STN: Can you summarize your early work with Proterra on building the electric school-bus prototype?

Clements: As a director, I have participated in our region’s Clean Cities Coalition. Kings Canyon Unified has been a charter member of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Cities Coalition, which sponsors stakeholder events in partnership with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Through my participation at these stakeholder events, I would learn about clean-air funding opportunities, alternative fuels and advanced technology vehicles. These opportunities exposed me to the Proterra Transit Bus and Smith Electric delivery vehicles. This is what led me to believe that an all-electric school bus could work with today’s more advanced battery technology. Based on the proven freight delivery success of the Smith Electric Newton Chassis, I approached friends at Creative Bus with the concept of a marriage of a school-bus body with the Smith Electric Newton chassis. I am extremely disappointed as there have been some manufacturing setbacks with the Smith Electric chassis version of the eTrans currently, leading to the lack of FMVSS approval.

I am now continuing to work with other interested electric drive systems manufacturers to bring electric school buses to Kings Canyon Unified and the San Joaquin Valley of California. Kings Canyon Unified still holds grant funding from local, state and federal sources to obtain and demonstrate up to six electric-powered school buses.

STN: How long did it take you to “green” KCUSD’s fleet, and what types of grants helped you to achieve your goals?

Clements: We are not yet totally “green.” It is an ongoing process as clean air funds become available. Most public school districts cannot afford to totally replace their yellow bus fleets all at once under these tough fiscal times we just went through. The other thing to think about is that the fuel technologies and advancement in engine emissions continue to improve.

Kings Canyon Unified has made use of funding from the California Energy Commission AB 35 Katz Clean Air School Bus Demonstration Program and Fueling Infrastructure Funds, California Air Resources Board Lower Emissions School Bus Program Prop 1B for School Bus Replacements and Retrofit Devices, AB 118 Hybrid/Electric School Bus Demonstration Project and AB ii8 Hybrid Vehicle Incentive Program, Federal Highway Administration – Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Funds for clean-air, alternative fuels school buses and CNG infrastructure, San Joaquin Valley APCD Lower Emissions School Bus Funds, SB 923 Funds, U.S. EPA DERA Funds through Sacramento Metro AQMD toward hybrid school buses and Fresno County Transportation Authority – Local Measure “C” Road Tax School Bus Replacement Program for additional school bus replacements.

Also, we obtained Advanced Technology Transit and Transportation Public Benefits Grant to use to replace school buses and obtain electric and hybrid school buses, plus advanced alternative fuels technician training. Overall, we’ve received more than $10 million in funding since 1993, with about $1.6 million pending in clean air school buses and white fleet vehicles in process.

STN: Since you first entered the alternative fuel arena, have your perceptions about one particular fuel or power source changed, and if so, why? Which do you see emerging as the front-runner in the next decade?

Clements: I have remained fuel neutral, as the emissions standards are nearly the same for the petroleum-based fuels. Kings Canyon Unified is a 600-square-mile school district ranging in elevation from 300 feet to 6,700 feet elevation above sea level. We have buses parked out at four sites over this region. Because of our mountainous terrain, we have chosen to purchase primarily heavy-duty Type D school buses that can be sent anywhere in the district.

I like natural gas due to the significant fuel savings. They (CNG buses) function well in our mountains and outlying rural areas, but it is not practical or cost effective to drive 30 to 50 miles to our refueling station. So, in our mountain region, we continue to spec cleaner diesel-powered school buses. We have tested propane, and I like the cost and fuel availability. I would prefer to have propane fuel available in a heavy-duty Type D with a heavier duty engine and transmission than is offered by our manufacturers today. I do realize that the Type C school bus drives the market for the country.

I believe we are going to see advances in the electric battery–powered school buses, leading to availability of a full range of school buses sizes, including Type D full-size electric school buses for specific uses. But, again, it depends on the specific need of that school system, type of terrain and fuel availability to determine which alternative suits the individual school district or contractor needs.

STN: What was your experience with the first fully electric Type-B school bus, the eTrans by Smith Electric Vehicles & Trans Tech Bus?

Clements: I personally drove our first production eTrans prototype nearly 1,200 miles (see photos). It was a fantastic school bus. The Trans Tech body was tight, no rattles, and I loved that track seating, great paint and all LED lighting inside and out. The Smith Electric chassis with the cab-over design was extremely maneuverable. I could make a U-turn in many places that a Type A van cut-away school buses would not. The electric power system was very quiet, easy to charge up and had good response on flat on low hill terrain. We drove numerous routes without children to determine range and roadway compatibility.

This first eTrans attended many school official and transportation trade shows and clean air events. The interest and response was overwhelming. If you had the opportunity to drive and even ride in our eTrans, you walked away with a “Wow!”

It is sad, but there have been manufacturing setbacks that led to this initial eTrans school bus failing to be completed, thus failing to obtain FMVSS approval, and as a result, CHP certification could not be finalized. Consequently, no schoolchildren could be transported in our electric school bus.

STN: Can you bring us up to date on your work with Motiv Power Systems on developing a new electric school bus?

Clements: For now, I would ask you to stay tuned. I am working aggressively with manufacturer(s) to have an electric school bus that can be FMVSS compliant and CHP certified to transport pupils for Kings Canyon Unified to fully utilize clean air funding we have available. The intent of some of our electric and hybrid school-bus grant funding is to share these advanced technology school buses in demonstrations with other San Joaquin Valley and California school districts. Kings Canyon Unified still has funding support for up to six small to midsize electric school buses.

STN: What kind of impact do you think the Clinton Global Initiative’s Electrified School Bus Project will make on student transportation?

Clements: This initiative could have a real benefit to school districts considering electric battery–powered school buses by offering annual operating funds to help offset the additional cost of purchase and electric bus ownership.

STN: Which needs to come first — an increased number of electrified buses or the infrastructure to support them?

Clements: First, we need electric school buses available for purchase on the market. There has been a setback of almost two years from when we were first introduced to the eTrans at the NAPT Summit in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 2011.

School district officials will want to see electric school buses function as reliably as their current diesel, CNG or propane school buses do now. The CGI incentives will need to offer good value, enough value to encourage some school officials to step up. On a small level, initially the infrastructure could run concurrent with a small electric school bus fleet to demonstrate this program can be a successful partnership between an electric school bus operator and the grid. I happen to know a school district where such a demonstration could work.

STN: Thank you.

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