A propane-powered school bus made a visit to the valley last week to demonstrate potential advantages for the school district’s fleet. Photo by Marcy Stamper

A propane-powered school bus made a visit to the valley last week
to demonstrate potential advantages for the school district’s fleet. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

A school bus powered by propane made a tour of the Methow Valley last Wednesday, part of the school district’s research into potential replacements for its aging bus fleet.

The school district has nine buses with an average age of 10 years, all with more than 100,000 miles on them, according to Methow Valley School District Transportation Supervisor Hunter Maltais. The district also has a newer van for special-needs students.

The district is looking into propane buses because the fuel is cleaner and easier on the engines, therefore requiring less maintenance, said Maltais. Propane-fueled vehicles typically last three to five years longer, he said.

The fuel is also less expensive than diesel. Propane currently costs $1.24 per gallon, whereas the district is paying $3.40 for a gallon of diesel, said Maltais. Propane gets lower fuel economy — about 5 miles per gallon, compared with 7 or 8 miles per gallon for the diesel buses, said Maltais.

Still, Maltais calculates that switching to buses using the alternative fuel would save the district $5,000 per bus each year. The district’s current budget for transportation — including salaries and maintenance — is $456,000, he said.

Because of its very low emissions and nontoxicity, propane is considered a “green” fuel, said Maltais. Vehicles that run on propane use less oil and do not require additives to assist with starting in cold weather.

Most propane (also known as liquefied petroleum gas – LPG – or autogas) is a byproduct of natural-gas processing and crude-oil refining, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Today there is an abundant domestic supply because it is also a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing (also called fracking) for natural gas, said John Van Winkle, a sales representative from Schetky Bus & Van Sales, who drove the demo bus to the valley. Schetky is the largest dealer of school buses in the Northwest.

The propane used to fuel vehicles, which have special engines and different combustion systems, is the same as the propane used for barbecue grills and heating stoves, said Van Winkle. Because there are fewer environmental control requirements for propane than for diesel, many organizations that operate fleets of propane vehicles have propane tanks on site to fuel them, he said.

Maltais is visiting the Camas School District in southwestern Washington this week, which has 10 propane buses in its fleet, as part of the research into meeting the district’s transportation needs.

The propane buses, equipped with chains, compression brakes (and stronger heaters for the passenger area—the No. 1 complaint about the current fleet) would cost about $113,000 each, said Maltais. Ideally, the district would like to replace six of its buses, he said.