Fun at Florida State Fairgrounds with clean fuel school buses

Written by Samuel Beaver, Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition intern

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From left: Michelle Jenkins (EPC of Hillsborough County) and Austin Sipiora, Alex Kolpakov, and Sam Beaver (Tampa Bay Clean Cities) Photo credit: Christina Van Allen, CUTR

Tampa Bay Clean Cities Coalition partnered with Florida Transportation Systems (FTS) and Blue Bird Corporation to host the Clean Fuel School Bus Expo at the Florida State Fairgrounds.

Zero- and low-emission school buses are moving the industry toward cleaner air and improved outcomes for students. Alternative fuel school buses, such as those that run on propane and electricity, are allowing districts to run cleaner routes by lowering emissions, reducing maintenance needs, and providing cost savings.

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The expo featured speakers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tampa Electric, Hillsborough County Schools, ROUSH and AmeriGas. Speakers highlighted major takeaways on electric school bus charging and funding, propane infrastructure installation and key considerations for alternative fuel school bus deployment.

Those in attendance included representatives from school districts all over the Tampa Bay area. The event provided an opportunity for attendees to learn about alternative fuel school bus technologies and available funding to support the transition to cleaner fuels.

Christopher Rustman, President of FTS, welcomed guests and spoke on the availability and benefits of alternative fuel school buses.

Christopher Rustman speaking to attendees on the benefits of alternative fuel school buses. Photo credit: Christina Van Allen, CUTR

“At present, Blue Bird has deployed over 30,000 alternative fuel school buses in over 3,000 school districts,” Rustman said. “Reduced emissions, lower maintenance costs, quiet operation, high performance, and availability of incentives are all driving this growth.”

Jim Beekman, Director of Transportation for Hillsborough County Schools, shared strategies for planning a successful electric bus program. He cited key factors, including evaluating electric bus operations, estimating total cost of ownership, identifying maintenance considerations and developing a solid business plan, as critical for successful implementation.

“It’s important to identify the electric bus’s optimal routes, considering factors like total distance between charging, time needed for afternoon routes and route clustering to consolidate parking and charging stations,” Beekman said. “Training is also critical to safely deploy these buses, including bus operators, maintenance staff, and first responders.”

Evaluating costs for electric buses requires a holistic approach, factoring in capital investment, battery life, fuel costs, infrastructure costs (initial and expansion), residual value and sustainability.

Unlike conventional diesel/gasoline buses, electric buses have unique fueling/charging considerations. Kenneth Hernandez, Electric Transportation Business Development Manager for TECO, emphasized the need to engage early with the school’s utility and to involve them in planning from the start.

According to Hernandez, “There are a lot of factors to consider, from charging level needs, electrical capacity at the bus depot site, setting appropriate rates, and preparing for the evolving landscape such as new utility-based programs and rates. School districts and utilities can work together to set realistic expectations and coordinate to plan for a successful electric bus deployment.”

Attendees were also able to learn about propane autogas technologies available for the school bus sector, as well as how to apply and access funding for their school districts. Propane-powered buses offer an opportunity to lower emissions compared to diesel or gasoline-powered buses and save on costs.

David Rigney, National Account Manager for AmeriGas, presented on the company’s lineup of propane fueling infrastructure.

TBCCC coordinator Alex Kolpakov moderating questions for the clean school bus panel. From left: Alex Kolpakov, Christopher Rustman, David Rigney, Kenneth Hernandez, and Jim Beekman. Photo credit: Christina Van Allen, CUTR

“AmeriGas can offer a fully integrated, customizable, web-based unit that tracks key data, produces customizable reports and includes mass flow meter options,” Rigney said. “AmeriGas works with our partners to assist with all facets, from installation, startup, and training, [to] safety training.”

Keynote speaker Dale Aspy from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spoke about the Clean School Bus Program, which offers $5 billion of funding distributed over five years for school districts to replace diesel buses that are 2010 model year or earlier with new clean fuel buses.

Unique to this opportunity, funding is provided upfront before the buses are purchased. All public and private school districts, except for private charter schools, are eligible for funding. Prioritized districts such as rural, low-income, and tribal school districts may receive additional funding for the buses. High-priority districts can receive up to $375,000 per electric bus, while non-priority districts can receive up to $250,000.

Although propane and CNG fueling infrastructure are not funded through this program, high-priority schools can receive up to $20,000 per electric school bus for charging infrastructure ($13,000 for non-priority districts). All funding received through this program must be used to purchase clean school buses and charging infrastructure. Leftover funds cannot be used for other things. Each school district may receive funding for up to 25 new buses. Applications for the program closed on August 19, after which selection will begin and will be done through a lottery system. EPA will notify the funding awardees in October of this year.

Photo credit: Christina Van Allen, CUTR

Following the presentations, attendees were encouraged to visit the charging exhibit displayed at the venue. One new feature for propane buses on display was the K15 quick-connect nozzle.

With this new nozzle, no personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed when refueling the buses, but operators must be trained on how to properly use it. Several attendees then accepted the invitation to experience the buses firsthand by driving the Blue Bird propane-powered and battery-electric school buses.

Rustman summarized the successful event: “The Clean School Bus Expo at the Fairgrounds provided attendees a forum to collaborate with colleagues and peers on an incredible opportunity with the EPA for funding and they even got to drive these clean-powered buses!”

Check out more photos from the event here.

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