PALATINE, Ill. — As rising fuel prices like diesel cause school bus expenses to skyrocket, some districts are looking for ways to cut costs. Some are also looking to find more ecofriendly transport options.
At the largest high school district in Illinois, 160 buses travel 7,000 to 12,000 miles each day.
With surging costs, the transportation budget was bursting the bank.
“We were looking for an alternative that would get us out of the diesel industry because maintenance costs were killing us, downtime was killing us,” said Scott Prusko, the transportation foreman at Palatine Township District 211 outside Chicago.
Add to that the noxious fuel emissions seeping into the ventilation of the school, and administrators were looking for a cleaner alternative.
“We really were interested in exploring options from an environmental standpoint. And we soon learned that the propane buses provided us those improvements,” said Lauren Hummel, chief operating officer at Palatine Township District 211.
The district is now running 51 propane school buses with a plan to go 100% propane by the end of the decade.
“They are essentially emission-free significantly less than our diesel buses,” said Hummel.
The Biden administration recently earmarked $7 million dollars to replace old diesel buses with zero-emission electric models.
It’s something Prusko considered.
“I think it's too early to enter into the electric game because it's kind of new,” he said. "We came in the propane late the fourth generation, and it's been working out wonderful.”
Across the country in Phoenix, school facilities manager David Dillman considered electric buses as an alternative as well. But at nearly four times the upfront cost and the potential strain on the power grid, he opted for propane.
“You have to really work with the local power company because it's like turning on a 20,000 square foot building as far as power consumption,” said Dillman, who works for charter school Empower College Prep.
Right now, a fleet of 22,000 propane-powered school buses is running nationwide across a thousand school districts in 49 states. That number is expected to grow.
“We've been able to take advantage of other grants that have been provided. We've received about $250,000 in rebates so far toward the purchase of our propane buses,” said Hummel.
As part of the historic bipartisan infrastructure law, the U.S. EPA is providing an additional $5 billion over five years to replace existing school buses with clean and zero-emission models.
The agency says it will begin taking applications for those rebates later this month.