June 29, 2023

Propane School Bus Deployment in Pennsylvania Showcases Environmental and Economic Benefits

Propane buses have reduced 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year across the districts.  

Tony Bandiero, Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation

Pennsylvania has become a leader in showcasing the benefits of propane school buses, thanks to education and technical assistance to fleets from Clean Cities coalitions. Propane buses offer many advantages, from reduced noise pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions to cold weather usability and more readily available infrastructure. Propane buses can have financial benefits to school districts, as well, often having a lower total cost of ownership compared to diesel.

Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities (PRCC) and Eastern Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Transportation (EP-ACT) have worked with more than 20 school districts throughout Pennsylvania to deploy approximately 1,000 propane school buses, making the state third in the nation for the number of alternative fuel school buses on the road. Thousands of students have ridden these buses and benefited from cleaner air in the five years since they were deployed.

"These propane buses have reduced 5,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year across the districts," said Tony Bandiero, executive director of EP-ACT.

Rick Price, executive director of PRCC, and Bandiero began working with school districts 10 years ago to increase awareness of propane school buses and identify deployment opportunities. The partner Clean Cities coalitions continue to organize ride and drives and other educational events, as well as workshops on funding opportunities and propane bus technology, operations, and maintenance. The fleet of propane buses currently in operation has raised awareness of the technology and its benefits and spurred adoption by other school districts in the state.

Adoption Begins with Education

When speaking to stakeholders, the coalitions emphasize the key benefits of propane fuel, including increased energy security, readily available infrastructure, improved fuel economy and performance, and positive impacts on public health and the environment. Bandiero and Price emphasize how through these and other benefits, propane school buses benefit children, the environment, and school district budgets.

Price and Bandiero conduct workshops—including an annual education and outreach event that highlights alternative fuels for the public—to raise awareness of propane buses. A key component of that education—and what often drives adoption—is letting people experience propane buses firsthand.

"They're skeptical until they get on," Bandiero said. "They drive a propane bus, feel the power and hear how quiet the bus is, and they can't believe it."

Price and Bandiero emphasized that meeting the needs of school districts means listening and providing technical guidance on the best options that meet those needs.

"We're an educational organization," Price said, "so, the main thing is to be able to point to the technologies and look at what works for people."

Clean Cities Coalitions Can Leverage Federal Technical Assistance

Technical assistance from NREL and other national laboratories provides Clean Cities coalitions with access to data and technical expertise they may not have on the local level. Lab staff can help coalitions tackle challenges and share national trends and data.

"NREL has data analytics, deep technical expertise, tools, and computer modeling and things like that coalitions may not have access to, or, even if they are available, coalitions may not have the expertise or the time to do that work," said Sarah Cardinali, an NREL senior transportation project manager.

"Propane buses provide many advantages, like ease of start-up and cold weather usability," said John Gonzales, a Clean Cities technical assistance lead and senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). "There's better heating compared to diesel, and propane fuel is half the price." And propane engines can be easier to maintain, he added.

Cost and return on investment remain key decision-making factors for fleets. "We still talk about propane school buses, their funding, and how much cheaper it is and how much easier it is to get into," Bandiero said. "Propane buses offer cost- and energy-effective options for districts in the present."

Strong Return on Investment

The return on investment for propane buses makes adopting them attractive. The purchase price of a propane bus is often more than the price of buying a diesel bus, but the lower total cost of ownership for propane buses provides a stronger return on investment. In Pennsylvania, the total cost of ownership for propane buses is around $143,000 less than diesel school buses (based on an analysis using the Alternative Fuel Life-Cycle Environmental and Economic Transportation [AFLEET] tool developed by Argonne National Laboratory). Propane buses also can be competitive with diesel buses when factoring in the costs associated with maintenance and emissions controls on a diesel vehicle.

Propane buses can be even more cost competitive compared to diesel when factoring in grants or incentives that are available to school districts. School districts can use the Laws and Incentives search tool on the Alternative Fuels Data Center to find relevant incentives in their area. The Alternative Fuels Incentive Grant Program also helps potential adopters fund their alternative fuel vehicle projects and purchases.

EP-ACT assists many school districts by working with them to write grant requests for propane bus funding, which saves fleet managers time on applications and allows them concentrate on their business. The coalition provides performance-based contracts for their grant writing service and only takes a fee if the grant is awarded. With administrative assistance on these grants, fleet managers can focus on getting children safely to and from school.

"As a coalition, we can take on the extra work so fleet managers only have to worry about keeping those buses running and keeping those kids on those buses," Bandiero said.

The fueling infrastructure cost benefits for propane buses is enticing, too. Fleets can connect with managers of existing infrastructure or establish private fueling and price infrastructure, which can also help reduce operational costs.

"Infrastructure is not a big cost, and sometimes fleets can work with a propane supplier and get the tank and dispenser put on site for no charge," Gonzales said. "They pay a lease fee. They have the equipment and there's no additional cost. Some buy the equipment outright and own it. Then it gives them the flexibility to choose their propane provider because then they can go out to bid and say, 'what is the best price you can give me? How long can we do it? What are the terms?'"

Listening to School Districts' Needs

With more than 1,000 propane buses already on Pennsylvania roads, the state is a leader in alternative fuel buses, thanks largely to the education and technical guidance work of EP-ACT and PRCC.

"When people have good information, they can make informed decisions,” Bandiero said. "The hardest part is really to get them to make that first initial step. Once they do, they see it's as easy or easier than their diesel buses. They try it out and say, 'oh, this is good. I want more of these.'"

Cardinali emphasized the role coalitions play in considering all factors when making recommendations to school districts. "Fleets are not one-size-fits-all," Cardinali said. "They have different customers, duty cycles, and tasks to carry out. There are also different types of fleets operating in different communities, different parts of the country, different environments, and weather conditions."

The Pennsylvania coalitions are continuing their work with school districts and private contractors throughout the state to help add propane school buses to fleets. That includes focusing on disadvantaged districts and figuring out ways to help them update their fleets with alternative fuel buses. The quick return on investment, fuel price, and ease of transitioning to propane buses mean they remain a popular choice for school districts. Add in air quality benefits and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and it's clear propane buses are a winning formula for children, school districts, and the environment.

Project at a Glance
Fleet Type: School buses
Fuel: Propane
Motivation: Reduced noise pollution, lower greenhouse gas emissions, cold weather usability, readily available infrastructure

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