Keeping the Faith

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If transportation could be plotted on an evolutionary scale, alternative fuels would be in the era of survival of the fittest. Now the race is on for the leading choice.

The energy options are as different as the vehicles: battery, biodiesel, electric, ethanol, hybrid electricity, natural gas, nitrogen and propane. Research and development are at various stages for both consumer and commercial vehicles.

The school bus industry is focusing on a shorter list of market-ready, viable options for today’s technology: biodiesel, natural gas and propane.

As petroleum prices rise and governments regulate, alternative fuel choices will play out. Especially as advocates and early adaptors prove the technologies and build the infrastructures.

According to the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), the main factors driving alternative fuel choices are research, emissions regulation, economics and consumer tolerances.

“If the alternative vehicles don’t meet the performance of today’s petroleum-powered vehicles, they will be voted out of the marketplace,” said David Cole, director of CAR.

As groups continue to prove the technology, proponents say the biggest hold up to expanding networks is understanding.

“People don’t like to change. They want to be comfortable,” said Parsons. “There’s a lot of bad press out there, and it could discourage a lot of school districts from trying things.”

Ultimately, the public will choose the leaders with their pocketbooks, which concerns researchers.

“All of these alternative fuels have to be used. You have to use them to replace the mass consumption of petroleum over the next decade. There’s no silver-bullet solution right now,” said Feehan.

Diesel’s ‘Cleaner’ CousinFor now, biodiesel leads the pack in alternative fuel choices. It’s a seamless fuel to use in school buses, because it entails the fewest modifications to a fleet. It took a grand total of one day for the Minneapolis Public School to switch it’s entire fleet of 215 buses over to the stuff. The infrastructure is well established and growing nationwide, and last year’s sales volume was at a peak 250 million gallons.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, more than 200 school districts in the U.S. use a blend of biodiesel, with the most common being B2 (containing 2 percent biodiesel) to B20 (20 percent biodiesel). It’s also homegrown in the U.S., which adds to energy security, and contains minutely small levels of sulfur.

But with all of its benefits, there are precautions. If not taken, there will be added maintenance costs.

Biodiesel needs to be mixed well, or else it will remain separated. It’s like a detergent, so it will clean out pre-existing fuel sediment. Filters will need to be changed upon first using biodiesel. It’s prone to growing bacteria, so users must manage the flow rate to keep it fresh. Another warning comes in obtaining the proper quality, which has improved over the last couple of years thanks to industry self-regulation under the BQ9000 quality certification program.

Still, at this point, it remains the most viable option.

“Filters are cheap; breakdowns aren’t,” said Frank Giordano, transportation director at Clark County School District in Nevada, which runs B20 in its 1,250 school buses and 500 maintenance vehicles.

Natural Gas AdaptorsTransportation Director Tim Purvis has been successfully running a natural gas school bus fleet and fueling station in Poway, Calif., for 16 years. The school district took advantage of government grants, excise tax rebates and utility partnerships to gain $5 million in a natural gas infrastructure, equipment and training.

Out of his 152 vehicle fleet, 36 buses run on natural gas. And they don’t restrict the vehicles from any regular routes in the 100-square-mile area just north of San Diego. It’s one of the largest alternative fuel fleets in the state, and the district surpassed the learning curve in operating it.

“They run just like the others. We see (our fuel pumps) much like our diesel and gas,” said Purvis. The school district opens its natural gas pumps to the public, but the appetite is small compared with conventional fuels.

Currently, there are only 130,000 natural gas vehicles in the U.S., and only a portion of them are school buses, according to the Clean Vehicle Education Foundation. There are only about 150 natural gas school bus fleets, and the fueling infrastructures are widely dispersed.

One issue with natural gas fleets is the high up-front costs to purchase Blue Bird and Thomas Built Buses, both of which sell natural gas vehicles, and to pay for the fueling systems. However, savvy planners wishing for a clearner burning alternative to diesel and propane can drive the cost down with tax rebates, grants and partnerships.

“It’s a life-cycle cost benefit. If you’re saving every day, you’ll pay yourself back,” said Stephe Yborra of NGV of America, Inc. “Over 15 years, you save enough money to buy your next bus.”

The savings mostly occur when a school district, or other organization, sets up its own infrastructure and compresses the gaseous fuel into a liquid, or LNG. At that point, governments are willing to reward the organization with a tax benefit — a 50 cents per gallon rebate. Federal and state governments also provide tax incentives for the natural gas buses.

Purvis has seen those natural gas benefits over the past decade and a half, in comparison with his diesel fleet. However, he’s also seen natural gas prices edge up over the past two years.

“It’s not a big concern right now,” said Purvis. “We put a lot of time and effort into this. We’re teaching our kids about (alternative) mass transit and showing them how to do it.”

Propane Back in the SaddleFor a while, propane was largely out of the school bus mix, even though the fueling infrastructures are abundant and campaigns for use are strong.

The Propane Education Research Council (PERC) reports the fuel powers approximately 200,000 consumer and commercial vehicles in the U.S. with nearly 3,200 refueling stations available to the public. Throw in the private pumps, and there are as many as 100,000 locations.

Now, Blue Bird is driving this alternative vehicle choice with its newly launched Vision, the only Type C school bus of its kind currently available. The company also offers natural gas and clean diesel powered buses.

“We’re giving our customers flexibility to pick the fuels they want. The Vision adds a choice for whatever fleet requirements they have to meet. Performance will be the key, and we’re exceeding expectations,” said Rusty Mitchell, Blue Bird’s product marketing manager.

The vehicle launch was made possible by a cadre of automotive suppliers, alternative fuel infrastructure developers and government-backed non-profit organizations. As Blue Bird launches its sales and training road show in Texas and California this fall, the other parties are expanding propane infrastructures.

CleanFUEL USA, for one, is offering to help districts set up propane in their yards. The company also installs consumer fuel stations for ethanol, which remains an unviable alternative for large school buses.

“We saw that no one was doing propane right,” said Robin Parsons, vice president of engine Technologies for Clean Fuels USA, warning that the biggest mistake school districts can make is during the bid for the fuel purchase and station construction. “When they bid, every gas company will answer it. Don’t put in cheap equipment on low bids. That choice will save money in the long run.”

Like natural gas, propane is entitled to excise tax credits for station owners. They can bid out the fuel, providing flexibility on cost and quantity. Fuel price for propane is less than diesel, and the price can go down even more if purchased in bulk.

Federal and state governments particularly like propane, because it provides a clean burn as well as energy security. Nearly 90 percent of propane is produced in the U.S. and Canada, and it’s a byproduct of oil refining and natural gas processing.

“We think there’s a real opportunity here. It’s something we need to collectively support,” said Brian Feehan, PERC’s managing director.

Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of School Transportation News magazine. All rights reserved.