Thursday, June 19, 2014

Economics fuel change to propane buses in Toppenish

From the exterior, the Toppenish School District’s two newest school buses look like the others in the fleet of 20. But a closer look reveals green stickers at the back and near the passenger doors. One word — propane — tells the story.

Toppenish this month became one of a handful of school districts in the state to inch toward propane by adding two propane-powered school buses in an effort to fight rising diesel prices by finding a cleaner and cheaper fuel.

“We’re really anxious to try them out,” said district Transportation Director Blaine Thorington. The two vehicles could be ready for some summer school routes.

According to Educational School District 105 Transportation Coordinator Dan Payne, Toppenish is the only district in the region to have propane-powered school buses. Seattle, Camas and Tonasket school districts also have them, he said.

The two 77-passenger school buses were ordered in January 2013 from a Portland dealer, but production delays in North Carolina tested the patience of district officials, said Thorington, also a longtime Toppenish city councilman.

The first bus arrived in Toppenish two weeks ago and the second late last week. A smaller third bus, intended for physically disabled students, will arrive in six months.

The use of propane as an alternative fuel is growing nationally as school districts grapple with rising gas and diesel prices and shift toward more green initiatives. While the majority of school buses is powered by diesel fuel, alternatives like propane, biodiesel and compressed natural gas have become more popular over the years.

A gallon of propane, Thorington said, costs $1.90, significantly less than diesel, which is over $4 per gallon at several locations. Add in a 50-cent-per-gallon tax rebate and the cost of propane goes down to $1.40.

Each of the two conventional buses costs $104,000, Thorington said. In addition, the cleaner characteristics of propane — no soot residue or carbon — means fewer oil changes and maintenance inspections.

“Because of the lower maintenance costs and gas prices, they may cost less in the long run,” Payne said.

Compared with diesel-powered vehicles, propane buses run quieter, emit less pollution into the air and the cabin, and perform as well as a standard bus.

There are drawbacks, though. Propane gets less mileage per gallon than diesel and not all of the fuel can be used.

“You can’t use every drop,” Thorington said. “You can probably use 80 percent or so. Even if it says the tank is full, we can’t use (some of it) depending on the temperature and the atmosphere.”

Don’t count on taking cross-country trips with a propane bus, either. With a very limited number of refueling stations and lower mileage, taking trips out of the Valley could be a hassle.

“From Toppenish, you probably couldn’t get to Seattle and back,” said Thorington. “We’d have to find a fueling station.”

Fortunately, Bleyhl Farm Service partnered with the district on a propane fueling station in Toppenish to serve the buses.

The main objective for Toppenish is to trim fuel costs. The district has already spent more than $90,000 on diesel in the 2013-14 school year; there are no projections yet on how much the district will save, but Thorington said fuel costs will go down.

There are no immediate plans to purchase more propane-powered buses, but that could change if the rollout goes well. Ideally, Thorington said they could replace half of the district’s 20-bus diesel fleet. Read more here.

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