Lee’s Summit school buses switch to a cleaner fuel

07/31/2013 6:12 PM

08/01/2013 12:02 AM

Lee’s Summit schools are driving into a bright yellow future by converting virtually the entire fleet of school buses and other vehicles from dirty diesel fuel to cleaner natural gas.

No fewer than 106 brand new yellow buses will hit the streets this coming semester in what is believed to be the largest conversion of a school fleet to natural gas in the country.

“It’s quieter, it’s cleaner and it costs less,” said Linda Thompson, transportation director for the school district. “It’s the perfect formula.”

Within 10 years, at least 139 of Lee’s Summit’s 149 school buses will have been switched out for buses burning natural gas. The others will be converted to an alternative fuel of some kind. In addition, 46 other trucks and vans used by the district will be switched to natural gas.

It’s a significant investment — $20.3 million — but it works out to be a very sweet deal.

By thinking big and bold, the school district was able to assemble a package that includes substantial private investment as well as public incentives. It is the culmination of about a year of research and preparation that included meeting with Texas oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens.

The district projects it will save about $11 million over 10 years in fuel and maintenance costs, and those and other benefits should continue beyond that.

The savings will allow the district to invest more into technology systems for classrooms, including $5 million this coming year.

“We are making changes within our district that will benefit students for years and years,” Superintendent David McGehee said in a statement.

The Lee’s Summit district is not the first public entity in the area to move toward compressed natural gas, or CNG, as a fuel. But it is the first to embrace it so comprehensively.

The Kansas City, Kan., school district purchased 47 natural gas buses in 2011. The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority this summer introduced two CNG buses and ordered 23 more. Kansas City has been adding CNG vehicles for about a decade and has converted about a tenth of its fleet.

“We are really enjoying the benefits of the cost of natural gas versus diesel and looking forward to the savings,” said Lenora Miller, transportation director for the Kansas City, Kan., school district.

The first two new Lee’s Summit CNG buses were delivered this week and will be displayed at a district announcement Thursday morning. The district will continue to receive new buses through the end of the year from Midwest Bus Sales, the distributor.

“It’s a big deal for us too,” said Ken Hedgecock, vice president of sales, marketing and service for Thomas Built Buses, the manufacturer. “We’re very thrilled that Lee’s Summit has confidence in our product.”

The company, a leading producer of school buses in North America, has delivered about 2,000 CNG buses over the last 20 years. They still represent only 2 to 3 percent of the company’s business, Hedgecock said, but that share is growing.

Peter Grace, senior vice president of sales and finance for Clean Energy Fuels, the largest supplier of natural gas for transportation in the United States, also said the market is growing.

“We’re seeing more interest from school districts of all sizes,” Grace said. “Many got into it years ago because of the environmental benefits. Today they’re saying it’s a good way to do the right thing, but also to reduce the cost of fuel and reduce dependency on foreign oil.”

Kelly Gilbert, who oversees the Clean Cities Program for the nonprofit Metropolitan Energy Center, said the upfront cost is often an impediment for school districts switching to natural gas. Kansas City, Kan., schools received a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Lee’s Summit district was able to strike a deal with Clean Energy. The company will invest $2.2 million to install the infrastructure for CNG pumps, including one on school district property that will be available to the public and other governments to purchase the alternative fuel.

The public fueling station — the first one on the Missouri side of the metropolitan area — will open this fall at the district’s bus lot off Hamblen Road south of U.S. 50.

“That’s the most important part, for our organization,” said Gilbert of the Metropolitan Energy Center.

Greater availability of CNG as a fuel is necessary to encourage others to make the switch, she said.

That’s what makes the investment in Lee’s Summit a strategic one for Clean Energy, which was co-founded by Pickens, who sits on its board. The company is hopeful that other area governments, school districts, law enforcement agencies and businesses will consider converting their fleets.

The Lee’s Summit School District is hopeful as well because it will receive a nickel in royalties for every gallon equivalent of CNG sold at the fueling station.

But that is only a small part of the benefits to the district. Although CNG buses cost roughly 30 percent more than diesel buses, they more than make up for that in savings over time.

The biggest is an estimated 70 percent savings in fuel costs.

“We have to find a way to make fuel costs more predictable,” said Ron Cox, director of purchasing and distribution services for the Lee’s Summit School District.

The district’s school buses now burn diesel fuel, the price of which can swing 25 to 30 percent from year to year. That creates budgeting difficulties. Natural gas prices, however, are not only lower than diesel but are expected to remain relatively flat.

“There will be some increase, but nothing like the volatility with oil prices or diesel prices,” said Grace, adding that stability is due to natural gas being so abundant domestically.

The Lee’s Summit district projects it will save $9.6 million over 10 years on fuel purchases for school buses using CNG.

In addition, with new school buses under warranty, the district expects to save about $624,000 in maintenance costs over 10 years. The average age of the current Lee’s Summit fleet is 12 years, compared with the Missouri average of 8.5 years.

Employees will need training to work with CNG vehicles, but that is being provided by the manufacturer as part of the lease-purchase agreement.

The district estimates it will also save about $900,000 in fuel and maintenance costs on its trucks and vans by converting to CNG.

The district is receiving about $330,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for the natural gas conversion.

It also will receive a 55-cent rebate from the federal government for each gallon equivalent of CNG that displaces diesel fuel. That is on top of no longer having to pay a 17-cent-per-gallon tax on diesel fuel.

There are other advantages natural gas has over gasoline and diesel. It is lighter than air, so it disperses quickly in the event of a spill. And it has a higher ignition temperature, so it is safer.

Natural gas can also reduce noise by as much as 50 percent compared with diesel engines.

And natural gas vehicles produce 20 to 30 percent less in greenhouse gas emissions than diesel vehicles, according to Thomas Built Buses and Clean Energy Fuels.

The Lee’s Summit school district’s fleet travels about 2 million miles a year, so it expects the conversion project to reduce emissions by nearly 100 metric tons the first year and by nearly 154 metric tons by the 10th year for both buses and other vehicles.

Because natural gas does not produce particulates, it is healthier for students, bus drivers and the public.

“You won’t see the black billowing smoke that you do when you follow a diesel vehicle,” Thompson said.

Lee’s Summit School District projected annual reductions in greenhouse emissions (in metric tons) with conversion to a natural gas fleet:

Year 1: 98.2

Year 2: 98.2

Year 3: 117.34

Year 4: 117.34

Year 5: 135.65

Year 6: 135.65

Year 7: 144.8

Year 8: 144.8

Year 9: 153.96

Year 10: 153.96


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