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Propane Buses Ease Costs, Reduce Emissions

Propane Buses Ease Costs, Reduce Emissions for Grain Valley School District

Sponsored by: Steve Ahrens is the executive director of the Missouri Propane Education & Research Council

 

Missouri Propane  Over the years, Missouri state reimbursements for school transportation have dropped from 75 percent to 16 to 20 percent of actual costs. School districts in the state have had to tap their own general school funds to make up the shortfall.

To help save money, Grain Valley School District considered two alternative fuels for its new school buses — compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane autogas. District representatives attended an alternative fuels workshop hosted by Kansas City Regional Clean Cities to learn more. The district found that “the vehicle costs and fueling station costs for CNG were much higher versus propane,” said Shawn Brady, director of transportation.

The district decided to purchase 14 propane buses in 2018 to replace diesel buses of 2001 and 2002 model years. Brady researched and applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to assist with the purchase costs of the buses.  

 

Preparing for Propane  

To fuel the new buses, the district entered into a contract with their local propane provider, Ferrellgas. A fueling station with two 1,000-gallon tanks was built in the school district’s bus parking lot in April 2018. “It saves time not to have to travel to refuel,” Brady noted.

Infrastructure costs for propane are the lowest of any fuel; alternative or conventional. For Grain Valley schools, the start-up cost for the fueling station totaled $16,500. “We received a 45 percent grant from Metropolitan Energy Center for the installation of our propane fueling station,” Brady said. The center’s grant amounted to $7,425. “The fueling station cost us only $9,075 after the grant.” 

Before putting the new buses on the district’s routes, drivers received training in propane bus operation. “Our bus vendor provided training on how to properly operate the buses and maximize fuel efficiency,” Brady said. The district’s technicians traveled to the bus manufacturer’s factory in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a complimentary week-long training course on maintenance. The district didn’t need to make changes to its bus repair facility. Requirements for a propane vehicle service facility are generally the same as those for conventionally fueled vehicles.

 

Financial Benefits  

After tapping grants for purchase assistance, each new bus cost about $250 more than a comparable diesel bus. District officials say that the higher initial cost can be quickly recouped in fuel savings.  

In fact, by adding propane buses to its fleet, Grain Valley School District has noted savings on both fuel and maintenance. On average, propane autogas costs up to 50 percent less than diesel. As part of its negotiated contract, Grain Valley paid a locked-in rate of $1.20 per gallon of propane in 2018-1019. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district pays $1.15 per gallon. For comparison, the district pays $2.31 per gallon on average for diesel.

Each bus in the district runs about 9,000 miles per year. For the 2018-2019 school year, fuel savings amounted to about $14,500.  “The district’s increased savings year after year will allow the transportation department to serve as a better steward of taxpayer money,” Brady said.

Additional savings come from the reduced maintenance. With propane autogas, no exhaust after-treatment or diesel emissions fluids are required like with diesel to meet today’s strict emissions regulations. Propane vehicles don’t need particulate trap systems, turbochargers and intercoolers. Plus, propane uses less engine oil. All these factors contribute to the overall savings of time and money. The district’s technicians like the propane buses, Brady reports, because “there are fewer parts and systems to have to maintain.” He noted that IC provides a traveling technician who assists his staff when they encounter maintenance issues.

Even more saving shows up for the district in the winter. Due to the chemical properties of propane autogas, the propane buses warm up faster and have no cold start issues. Unlike diesel vehicles, these buses can start up in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. School districts report lower electric costs because the propane buses don’t rely on block heaters. “Our propane buses warmed up faster this past winter than the diesel buses,” Brady said.

 

Beyond the Bottom Line  

Grain Valley’s propane buses are helping the community’s air quality. Unlike diesel buses, propane vehicles emit virtually no particulate matter and, with substantially less nitrogen oxides (NOx). Buses fueled by propane also emit fewer greenhouse gases and total hydrocarbon emissions when compared to diesel buses. Propane’s quiet operation makes riding the bus more pleasant for passengers and safer for drivers, who are less distracted by engine noise. “We’ve benefitted from much cleaner air and much quieter buses running through neighborhoods,” Brady said.

Drivers also report that the propane dispenser pumps are just as fast or faster than the diesel fuel pump when it’s time to fill the tank. The district notes that it will be sure to order buses with 100-gallon fuel tanks going forward. “These were not available from IC when we placed our first order,” Brady said.

The district’s leadership in adopting an alternative fuel earned it a 2018 Agent of Change Award from the Metropolitan Energy Center, a Kansas City nonprofit catalyst for energy efficiency, economic development and environmental vitality.

The district’s plan to purchase seven more propane buses this year, and eventually move to an all-propane fleet, speaks to the administration’s belief in the benefits of this alternative fuel for their students, drivers and overall community.

 

“Our district made the decision on propane buses to save money. The environmental impact is an added benefit. There’s no reason to not make the move into propane now,” Brady said.