By Jennifer Wohlleb
As far as pilot programs go, the one this past year to test one propane-fueled school bus in Crittenden County Schools was so successful, the district now has seven of them out of a fleet of 35. And the Kentucky Department of Education now is allowing any district in the state to operate them. Prior to this, only diesel-engine buses were used in school districts.
“The numbers I had projected were being reached almost immediately,” said Wayne Winters, Crittenden County Schools’ lead bus mechanic, who spearheaded the efforts to bring propane school buses to the state. “It was a little more money efficient than we thought it was going to be.
“When we sent the numbers in (to the state Department of Education), we thought it was going to take 2 ½ years for us to drive out of the bus, and when I say that I’m talking about the extra expense of buying the propane vs. diesel. Now that we’ve got those buses on the road and seeing the actual numbers, we’re driving out of the cost of those buses in almost the first year. They are saving us about $5,000 a year in fuel costs.”
He said a base school bus with a diesel engine costs about $82,000; one with a propane engine costs about $89,000.
Elisa Hanley, KDE’s pupil transportation section supervisor, said the propane bus in the pilot performed equal to or better than a similar diesel bus at a much lower cost per mile.
“Records indicate that an average diesel bus has a fuel cost of 52 cents per mile,” she said. “The propane bus, a fuel cost of 23 cents per mile. A propane powered engine produces 60 percent less carbon monoxide, 20 percent less nitrogen oxide. Propane has proven to be a viable option with lower operating costs.”
Greener, healthier and more reliable
Winters said while the savings are nice, the health benefits are an even bigger reason to make the switch.
“Absolutely, most positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the most significant thing about running propane-powered buses, trucks, cars, lawnmowers, is the pollution factor,” he said. “Diesel puts off pollution called particulate matter, which is a microscopic soot and it gets in your respiratory system and causes a lot of problems. It’s one of the leading respiratory problems that we know about.”
Winters said the savings in health care costs could easily and greatly surpass the cost of upgrading to propane engines. A $2 million grant from the U.S. EPA to Kern County Schools and other agencies in the San Joaquin Valley in California to replace buses and other equipment with lower-emission vehicles is estimated by federal authorities to have resulted in $146 million in cost savings from reduced medical care, lost school and work days, and premature deaths.
“The research shows that the children are in the development stages of their respiratory systems when they are riding our buses and that even a little bit of that particulate matter can contribute to respiratory problems,” Winters said.
He said propane seems less prone to the extreme price fluctuations the market has experienced in recent years with gas and diesel.
“We can’t predict what propane is going to cost next week, next month, next year, 10 years from now, but we can go back in time and look at the charts and see propane and natural gas prices over the last 20-30 years, and according to the trend of those prices, it looks like propane and natural gas should stay relatively cheap, if you will, compared to gas and diesel prices,” he said. “From everything we can base our future on from the past, it looks like propane will still be one of the best fuel alternatives that we in the United States will have in our future. The other thing good about it is, 90 percent of the propane and natural gas that we use here in the United States is produced here in the United States.”
And while this may be a new area for Kentucky, Winters said propane school buses have been operated safely in other states for years.
“California has been running natural gas and propane buses for 20-plus years,” he said. “Mesa, Ariz., started putting propane buses in their fleet four years ago. They have a very large fleet of propane buses and each year they show the savings they’ve had – it’s remarkable. We just saw Omaha, Neb., order 434 propane buses last year, the biggest order of propane buses in history. Lafayette, Ind., bought 20 propane buses. Propane powered vehicles are not new; it’s just becoming more efficient to run them, now.”
Off to a fast start
This fall is the first time Kentucky districts have been allowed to order propane-powered buses, and Allen County school district leaders wasted no time getting in on the action.
“We are buying two buses, we have them ordered,” said Superintendent Randall Jackson. “We hope they will be in sometime in October.”
District Director of Operations Brian Carter said the district anticipates fewer maintenance issues with these buses.
“With diesel you get a lot of gunk built up, a lot of emissions,” he said. “We’re having lots of diesel engine problems because of the gunk and the wear and tear, and our mechanics have researched it and believe with these propane buses we won’t have these problems in the future. We’re also estimating fuel savings on an average route, which for us is about 17,000 miles per year, to be about $2,500 per bus.”
And while recent winters have seen propane shortages in some areas, district officials say they are not worried.
“We do have local propane vendors here, so I guess you can say we’re confident with the supplies,” Carter said. “And that is something we’ll look at in the future, building our own storage facility here, fueling station here, so that will not become an issue.”
No such thing as a bad question
School board members are always being encouraged to ask questions and in Crittenden County, one question led to a statewide change.
Crittenden County school board member Bill Asbridge asked district administrators why there were no propane-fueled school buses operated in Kentucky, when he remembers as a young man his father driving such a truck. He also had recently seen a television program that touched on the topic.
“In California, which is one of the most safety, clean, regulated states in the United States, they were talking about a school district there with about half its fleet of propane buses,” he said. “And that’s when I really got after our people to start researching and looking.”
Crittenden County school leaders approached the Kentucky Department of Education, did some research and were greenlighted this past year to operate a propane bus in their district as a pilot that was so successful they quickly added two more buses.
“Propane burns so much cleaner,” said Asbridge, who owns an auto body shop. “In the wintertime with diesel, you have to plug those buses in and keep those (engine) blocks warm; you don’t have to do that with a propane bus. You’re not out the cost of sitting there running your electricity to warm the blocks up on your bus when it’s cold weather, because it will start in cold weather just as good as a gas engine will.”
He said the mileage is just as good if not a little better than diesel-operated buses; they are healthier and even cheaper to maintain; and the engines may last 50,000 to 100,000 miles longer than diesel.
“Your motors are going to last longer because – we change oil on a regular basis – when the oil comes out of a propane engine, it’s as clean as it can be,” he said. “When you change the oil in diesel bus, start it up, drive it down the road, come back, and it will be black when you take it out. That’s just the way it is.”
Asbridge said given the success in Crittenden County, he thinks many districts will consider making this change.
“There’s too many positive factors not to try it,” he said.