NAPPANEE — Wa-Nee Community Schools is being featured in a conversation on clean fuel emissions to show other school districts and businesses just how beneficial a different form of energy can be in the transportation fleet industry.
Recently converting four of its buses to autogas, the district is at the forefront of clean transportation, advocates say.
Wa-Nee transportation director Amy Rosa, in conjunction with South Shore Clean Cities Inc., hosted a program Monday to encourage other fleet directors to consider autogas vehicles when upgrading their fleet.
Autogas, or propane fuel, is the same propane used in the home or in a gas grill, but it’s being used in large vehicles. Also known as liquefied petroleum gas, propane is an odorless hydrocarbon gas, which when used as an alternative to diesel or gasoline, reduces life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 10 percent.
“Diesel engines have a lot of after-treatment to them,” said Greg Zilberfarb, consultant for the Propane Education Research Council. “You put things on them to try to make them cleaner, and those are the things that aren’t working well. They’re costly, they have a lot of problems with the engine breaking down. Propane is basically a gasoline engine that’s been modified or designed to work with propane.”
Propane vehicles also cost less in both maintenance and fueling costs, he said.
“We’re a cleaner-burning fuel, and we’re domestically produced,” Zilberfarb said.
Due to the excess in propane on the market, prices have dropped substantially, Zilberfarb said, so the industry is seeking new ways to use the product, and transportation is proving beneficial.
Rosa estimated a cost savings of $25,000 per year per bus with the new propane vehicles.
“Now we can say that the money we’re saving is helping the classroom,” she said.
She explained that school budgets used to be divided up by department. Legislation last year changed the way schools divide up their budget, putting the transportation fund and the education fund into the same funding pool.
In the fleet of 53 buses, the district will switch about 20 of the 34 yellow buses to propane in the near future, eventually converting all 34.
The district covers 247 square miles for athletic and marching band events, Rosa said, so fueling the propane vehicles can be a unique challenge.
“The drivers are really talking about them. They’re excited about the next set of them,” she said.
The nearest propane fueling stations are in Warsaw and Akron, with limited service stations in Elkhart, South Bend, Shipshewana and Knox. Since propane fueling docks are not available at traditional stations, groups interested in switching to propane must work with marketers to provide service stations.
“Propane fueling stations are very inexpensive to put in and that’s because they’re nontoxic to water and air,” Zilberfarb said. “Most of the cost for gasoline and diesel stations is the EPA monitoring that goes underground to make sure there’s no leaking.”
Zilberfarb added that if a propane leak did occur, it would be nontoxic.
He estimates that propane fueling stations can cost as little as $12,000 to construct depending on the number of vehicles in the fleet.
“It’s good for our kids, it’s good for the environment, everybody wins,” South Shore Clean Cities Executive Director Carl Lisek said. “The community wins, and the kids win because autogas uses less fuel and we think it’s going to help with air quality, and air quality on the interior of the bus is going to be a lot cleaner, and maintenance costs associated with the use of autogas are a lot cheaper.”
Clean Cities, a U.S. Department of Energy organization serving Indiana, promotes domestic and clean fuel for transportation.
In recent years, Lisek said, the country has seen an 800 percent increase in school corporations moving toward autogas. Nearly 40 school districts throughout the state are using autogas for at least some of their buses.
“It’s really taken off here in our state,” Lisek said. “Within the MACOG territory, we want a greener environment so that it attracts more green businesses.”
Elkhart Community Schools, Elkhart Highway Department, Baugo Community Schools, Goshen Community Schools and representatives from many other groups were on site to listen and learn about the benefits of autogas for transportation fleets.
“There’s huge opportunities for schools to take advantage of funding, but even without the funding, the return on investment makes it cheaper than conventional diesel buses,” Lisek said.
For Rosa, though, the defining moment wasn’t the cost savings or the green technology. It was the noise reduction.
“When we’re standing outside with the buses, it’s quiet,” she said. “Even when we’re standing outside having conversations, it’s quiet when the buses are running. We’re not screaming over the engine. With principals, bringing kids off the bus, and sometimes law enforcement is there having a discussion, anything that is going to increase safety for me is top of the list. Everything about this bus seems safer.”