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Two local school districts embracing alternative fuel buses

August 19, 2018

This school year, the Sedro-Woolley School District will have two new propane-fueled school buses running on two of the district’s longest routes.

This means the district will have eight propane buses in its fleet of 49.

The decision to add propane buses will save the district on fuel costs and servicing over the buses’ diesel counterparts, according to school district Director of Transportation Chet Griffith.

“What we’re looking at doing is providing more money for classrooms,” Griffith said. “And if we can contribute to that with transportation, we’re going in the right direction.”

The Anacortes School District has also gotten into alternative-fuel buses as two in its fleet of 25 run on propane.

Jeff Abrahamse, lead mechanic at the district, said federal rebates and the cost of propane drove the district to invest in buses that run on an alternative fuel.

Abrahamse said the fuel costs are enticing, and that Anacortes is paying about $1 per gallon for liquid propane and about $3.50 per gallon for diesel.

The La Conner, Conway, Burlington-Edison, Mount Vernon and Concrete school districts have bus fleets that are diesel only or a combination of diesel and gasoline.

Propane at Sedro-Woolley

Sedro-Woolley’s push toward alternative fuel buses in 2015 was sparked by an increase in the cost of diesel fuel and the accessibility of the vehicles by manufacturers, Griffith said.

Not only is the administration enjoying the propane buses, Griffith said, but the mechanics are as well.

Chad Wesson, a Sedro-Woolley School District mechanic, said the propane buses have more power, require fewer emission services than diesel buses, are quicker to service and drive as quiet as a car.

“As far as a mechanical standpoint, we haven’t had any problems with them,” Wesson said.

The district has put about 100,000 miles on the oldest of its propane buses and hasn’t had to worry about much, except oil changes and spark plug replacement, Wesson said.

Diesel engines require constant maintenance on aftertreatment systems, which control the level of air pollutants and keeps the diesel engine burning clean, Wesson said.

Emission checks on diesel buses, Wesson said, are a timely and expensive cost.

One propane bus can save a district $109,800 over the 15-year lifespan of the bus, according to a 2017 Roush Clean Tech customer index.

“Propane’s really come a long way from where it was before,” Griffith said. “The cost to run them is cheaper, not only for fuel but for maintaining them.”

Future of the industry

About a decade ago, diesel was the way to go. Today, school districts have options.

Manufacturers offer a number of alternative fuel buses, such as natural gas, propane and electric.

Each has its benefits and drawbacks, but together they allow school districts to make choices based on their transportation needs, said Mario Difoggio, manager of marketing at Thomas Built Buses.

“In some cases, diesel might be the best option,” he said. “In some cases, propane might be the best option. You’ve really gotta analyze all the options.”

Industry professionals and school district staffers say the future is electric buses — just not now.

Purchasing costs and infrastructure are among the reasons electric buses have been slow to catch on, Difoggio said. Electric buses cost about $300,000, a steep price when compared to a $110,000 diesel bus or $120,000 propane bus.

Diesel will continue to drive the market, Difoggio said.

“Until that continues to sort itself out, batteries will not be a majority source ... it’s a very immature market right now, but it is coming fast,” Difoggio said.

Diesel engines are keeping up with those powered by alternative fuels, Difoggio said. The engines and technology have become cleaner and more efficient.

Thomas Built Buses says its diesel bus emissions are comparable to other fuel types and that emissions are 90 percent cleaner than they were about a decade ago.

“The one thing diesel will always battle is the stigma of dirty diesel,” said Mark Childers, powertrain and technology sales manager at Thomas Built Buses.

Childers said diesel buses also have a greater fuel economy when compared to propane.

Propane still has advantages when it comes to emissions, though. It is nontoxic and produces 30 to 60 percent less carbon monoxide emissions, according to studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Because infrastructure costs and transportation needs vary among school districts, what’s good for one district isn’t always good for another.

Jim Hinckle, transportation supervisor for the Mount Vernon School District, said it’s hard to go to alternative fuels without the proper infrastructure, such as fuel stations.

His school district is expected to stay mostly diesel, he said.

Infrastructure costs for Sedro-Woolley School District were about $4,000, Griffith said.

Abrahamse said Anacortes School District didn’t spend much, because the city of Anacortes assisted in constructing the infrastructure.

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