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Why propane, not electric, school buses are Utah’s best option

Electric buses may be a viable option in the future for Utah. But today, propane buses are more realistic and cost-effective

SHARE Why propane, not electric, school buses are Utah’s best option
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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The Salt Lake City School District recently announced it will be adding electric school busesto its fleet, thanks to two grants from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. This is good news — it’s clear the district is committed to making school transportation a healthier experience for students and parents. Consider, though, that the combination of propane school buses and electric models will lead to the common goal of cleaner air and better financials for Salt Lake City and state schools.

Wayne Reese, transportation and logistics administrator for the Cache County and Logan City school districts, pulls no punches when it comes to his favorite benefit of his 12 propane school buses, with two more on the way this summer.

“So far, we haven’t paid more than $1 per gallon for propane. We buy it in bulk,” Reese said. “We put in an 18,000-gallon tank and we’re spending less than half the cost of diesel fuel per gallon.”

But that’s only the half of it. Reese said his districts, too, received a grant from the Utah Environmental Quality to help purchase its propane buses, “and the local governments have appreciated what we’ve done to help clear the air.”

There are over 22,000 propane school buses on American roads transporting over 1.3 million kids to school each day in almost 1,000 school districts. There are about 80 propane buses operating in 11 districts in Utah, including Reese’s and the 11 the Iron County School District has been operating since 2015. The benefits those buses provide to communities across the state and the nation are myriad.

Emissions: Although electric school buses don’t produce tailpipe vehicle emissions, propane school buses are as clean, if not cleaner, when you factor in the emissions from electric power plants. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 27% of energy generation comes from coal and 63% from nonrenewable sources. According to a West Virginia University study released in 2019, propane school buses reduce nitrogen oxides by at least 95%. In real-world applications of stop-and-go bus driving, diesel emissions are 34 times higher than with propane.

Cost: A propane school bus costs three to four times less than an electric school bus. The simple math means that Utah can achieve three to four times the removal of older, dirtier diesel buses. Those cost savings can go back into the classroom. According to the World LP Gas Association’s 2018 report, “The Role of LPG in Shaping The Energy Transition,” if all the nation’s diesel school buses were converted to clean-operating propane, U.S. school districts could hire more than 23,000 teachers with the fuel and maintenance savings.

Range: With a range of up to 400 miles on a single fueling, propane buses provide the distance that school systems need to get through daily routes and after-school events. Compare that to electric buses, which are capable of a maximum of 120 miles on a single charge. Reese says his propane buses, which are used to transport students with disabilities, travel up to 150 miles per day.

Performance: Propane buses start up and operate reliably in all weather conditions, from the hottest days to as cold as minus 40 degrees. Since Utah is in a cold climate, Reese appreciates the fact that his propane buses heat up fast.

Fueling: A propane station costs much less than any other type of fueling station, including electric recharging. There are thousands of public stations throughout the nation, but for school districts and school bus contractors requiring onsite fueling, a local propane provider can install a propane station for little — often zero — cost with a fueling contract. Then there is the fact that fueling a propane bus takes minutes, and not hours, like the time it takes to recharge an electric bus.

Electric buses may be a viable option in the future for Utah. But today, domestically produced, readily available, clean propane is the healthiest and most cost-effective option for our schools, students, communities and taxpayers. 

Tom Clark is executive director of the Rocky Mountain Propane Association, based in Ogden. Tucker Perkins is the president and CEO of the Propane Education & Research Council based in Washington, D.C.