East Baton Rouge school system transitioning to cleaner school buses

Written by Olivia Montgomery, LCF Intern

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After the August 2016 floods wiped out about 110 school buses in East Baton Rouge Parish, the school system seized the opportunity to transition its fleet to cleaner fuel options, becoming the recipient of Louisiana Clean Fuels’s Rising Star Award in 2017.

Thanks to the availability of Volkswagen Settlement funding, a number of other school systems in Louisiana are now making the transition too. This includes the parishes of Ascension, Lafayette, Winn, Rapides, St. John the Baptist, Beauregard, Bossier, Plaquemines, St. Helena, Union, Vernon and Tangipahoa. 

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Nearly four years later, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System (EBRPSS) continues its efforts to reduce its fleet’s emissions.

In 2016, the school system received nearly $773,000 in Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) funding to purchase 30 buses. DERA grants fund 25% of the total cost of new buses. EBRPSS has since received two more DERA grants, in addition to receiving a portion of the civil settlement from automaker Volkswagen, who settled claims with US authorities after violating emissions laws by installing a “defeat device” in thousands of vehicles. Ultimately, these four grants total $4,485,894.50 and, in conjunction with EBRPSS funds, will purchase 130 propane school buses over time. 

EBRPSS’s shift to propane school buses showcases an important trend across the country and offers benefits including reduced operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions. Propane buses are shown to reduce fuel costs significantly. Roush CleanTech, the manufacturer of the propane autogas system installed in Blue Bird Vision school buses, estimates fleets can lower their fuel costs by 40% by switching to propane, in addition to lower costs of maintenance over time.

Case studies support this estimate, with Mesa Unified School District in Phoenix, Arizona reporting having saved $2.91 per gallon on fuel compared to diesel. Mesa expects to save $4.43 million on fuel costs over five years, and they expect each bus will have a longer lifespan than conventional diesel buses, with about five additional years on the road for each bus. EBRPSS reports spending $1,970,173 on fuel from July 2015 to June 2016. If the school district saves 40% per year, as Roush CleanTech estimates is possible, the savings would total an annual $788,069.20 reduction in fuel costs.

Reducing emissions in school bus fleets is another direct benefit to children in the school system. Children are more susceptible to the harmful side effects of exhaust due to their developing respiratory systems and faster rates of breathing. With school buses able to seat about 70 children per bus, reducing diesel exhaust and improving air quality is a top priority of school systems making the switch to propane. EBRPSS alone serves 42,000 children.

A comprehensive study by the Propane Education and Research Council shows propane school buses emit up to 96% less NOx and 13% less carbon dioxide than diesel buses. 

The future looks bright in regard to EBRPSS’s ability to procure more propane buses. The school system plans to apply for additional DERA grants in the years to come.

Many states are adopting more programs to aid school systems in their transition to cleaner school bus fleets. For example, West Virginia counties using compressed natural gas or propane autogas in their school bus fleets may be eligible for a 10% reimbursement to offset the maintenance and costs of those buses. In Nevada, penalties assessed for air pollution violations are deposited into the account of the school district where they occurred and may be used for the purchase of school buses that operate on alternative fuels.

At this time, EBRPSS will incrementally acquire buses through the referenced grants, and hopefully, new funding sources become available to continue the school system’s transition to cleaner fuels after all 130 new propane buses have arrived.

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