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Popularity of Propane School Buses Fueled by Economic Savings

In the latest round of Missouri state budget cuts, school transportation funding was on the chopping block again. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary now covers 16 percent of school transportation funding, down from 22 percent in recent years and 40 percent in 2008. School districts are scrambling to figure out how to put a reduced transportation budget together.

One possible solution? School buses fueled by propane autogas.

Propane, the same energy that heats homes and fills barbeque tanks, is often referred to as autogas when used in on-road engines. Propane autogas is the leading alternative fuel in the United States and the third most commonly used vehicle fuel, following gasoline and diesel. Globally, there are more than 25 million propane autogas vehicles traveling the roads.

All three major school bus manufacturers, Blue Bird, IC Bus and Thomas Built, offer propane-fueled school bus options. Currently, about 12,000 propane buses transport students in 600 school districts across the U.S., according to the Propane Education & Research Council.

Four years ago, Fort Zumwalt in O’Fallon became the first Missouri school district to add propane buses. The district chose propane for its quieter and cleaner ride for students — and a savings of $3,000 per bus each year. They now have 56 Blue Bird Vision school buses, each equipped with a ROUSH CleanTech liquid propane fuel system.

Neosho School District operates 18 propane buses.

“We saved $ 19,000 for mileage ran on propane buses this year compared to the same number of miles driven by our diesel buses,” said Michelle Embrey, transportation director for Neosho School District. “And that does not take into consideration the $24,000 we have coming back to us for the alternative fuels credit.” (Editor’s note: Federal tax credits for alternative fuels expired at the end of 2016 but are under consideration for reinstatement.)

Embrey cited lower emissions, reduced noise levels of the bus and comfort of the students as additional benefits. The district is “extremely happy with our propane buses,” she said.

In other parts of the country, the South Carolina Department of Education recently added 26 propane buses to replace aging diesel buses. These diesel buses, many decades old, cost them 49 cents per mile. Projections show that the new propane buses will reduce costs to 21 cents per mile — a savings of 28 cents per mile.

On average, propane autogas costs 40 to 50 percent less than diesel. Less maintenance is required on propane buses due to the clean-burning properties of the fuel. According to Blue Bird, districts can expect to save an average of $2,000 to $2,500 per bus per year on fuel and maintenance costs with propane autogas. Engines powered by propane autogas require less oil per oil change than diesel, and no additional diesel emissions fluids or hardware. Filter packages cost about 60 percent less for propane autogas vehicles than diesel vehicles.

When factoring in fuel and maintenance savings, Florida’s Broward County reported saving 38 cents per mile — or more than $600,000 annually in total operating costs for its 98 propane buses. Bend-La Pine School District in Oregon pays 57 percent less for its propane autogas than for diesel to fuel its school buses. Mesa Public Schools in Arizona has experienced 37 cents per mile cost savings with propane autogas compared to diesel.

A case study from the U.S. Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center summarizes the use of domestically produced propane autogas in school buses deployed by five school districts. Compared to diesel, some of the school districts saved nearly 50 percent on a cost per mile basis for fuel and maintenance.

With the Propane Education & Research Council’s savings calculator, transportation directors can plug in specific fleet information to learn lifetime ownership costs comparing propane autogas to conventional fuels.

In addition to cost savings, propane school buses reduce emissions. When compared to conventional diesel-powered buses, they emit fewer greenhouse gases and total hydrocarbon emissions, and virtually eliminate particulate matter.

Propane is recognized as an alternative fuel under the Clean Air Act. School districts that deploy propane school buses may be eligible for federal and state funding and fuel tax credits. Visit the Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center at http://www.afdc.energy.gov/laws/. The U.S. Energy Department’s Clean Cities program supports and funds alternative fuel programs. Both St. Louis Clean Cities and Kansas City Regional Clean Cities operate in Missouri.

Yet, the largest funding may come from the recent Volkswagen settlement, which resulted in the creation of an Environmental Mitigation Trust Fund. The dollars set aside in this trust will fund actions that reduce smog-forming nitrogen oxide emission, such as replacing old, pre-emission diesel buses with cleaner buses, such as propane. The fund has allocated the state of Missouri about $40 million.

Under the current budget, Missouri school districts will have to cover more transportation costs. Propane autogas may be the solution for districts looking for safe student transportation that will help meet reduced budgets and create a cleaner environment for their students, drivers and community.

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