Saving air, gas and money: ISD, Grain Valley see costs drop, ease of use from new propane bus fleet

By Mike Genet
One of the Independence School District’s propane-powered buses refuels at the district’s transportation center. The district started using 10 propane-powered buses during the summer and believes it could save $10,000 in fuel this school year.

When the Independence School District planned last year to purchase 10 propane-powered school buses to add to its fleet, the district anticipated about $10,000 in fuel savings for the first school year.

The district employed the new buses starting with summer school in July, as a couple grants helped ease the purchase cost. But while it’s too soon to have a full year to gauge, ISD officials like the early returns.

“When you look at the price of diesel fuel and cost of propane – at this point, it’s still projecting, but it’s very reasonable we would see that,” Darryl Huddleston, director of transportation, said of potentially $10,000 in savings.

Independence this year and Grain Valley two years ago joined a growing list of school districts across the nation that have switched to some degree to propane-powered buses. 

According to Steve Ahrens, president of the Missouri Propane Education & Research Council (MOPERC), the state of Missouri has about about 300 propane buses in operation, including 155 used by the contractor for the Kansas City School District. Nationwide, he said, about 1,000 school districts use more than 20,000 propane buses. 

Besides lower fuel costs – Huddleston said ISD locked in its propane fuel at 68 cents per gallon for this year, while diesel fuel right now runs about $2, according to AAA – propane also burns cleaner with fewer emissions because of its lower carbon content, and the buses require less maintenance. Propane fuel yields slightly less miles per gallon, but the price difference more than compensates.

“One of the first things we heard from (drivers) is they’re certainly a lot quieter,” Huddleston said. “The acceleration is fine, so no concerns there.”

And not that ISD has had to experience that yet, but propane buses have also been shown to start and heat up easier in the freezing winter months.

“We can skip that altogether, frankly,” Huddleston said jokingly, “but I’m sure we’ll have the opportunity.”

One of the Independence School District’s propane-powered buses is shown on the city streets this summer. The district started using 10 propane-powered buses during the summer and believes it could save $10,000 in fuel this school year. A propane advocate believes there are about 300 propane-powered school buses currently used across the state.

The cost for 10 propane buses was a bit north of $1 million, he said, though grants from MOPERC and the Environmental Protection Agency covered about 20 percent of that cost. While they’ll still maintain some diesel buses especially to use for longer activity trips because propane fueling stations are scarce, Huddleston said the district will likely trend more toward propane.

“I certainly believe we’re committed to going down the propane path,” he said.

After the Grain Valley School District purchased 14 propane buses two years ago, it saved about $14,500 in fuel. Over the 2019-20 school year, with seven more propane buses in the fleet, again replacing old diesel buses, the savings rose to $21,700. Right now, the 21 buses represent about 40 percent of the district’s fleet, Assistant Superintendent Nick Gooch said. Like ISD, Grain Valley will always maintain some diesel buses for longer trips.

Cleaner and cheaper: Grain Valley, Independence schools turn to propane

“As time goes on we’ll add more,” Gooch said. “We definitely like the cost savings and clean energy.

“When we first bought the original 14, we had to get a lot of rebates, but when we bought seven last year, it was more comparative (to diesel). It was almost comparing apples to apples.”

Propane buses are at least on the radar of a couple other area school districts, as well.

Fort Osage School District had primarily leased buses until this year. 

“We have had discussions the last few years regarding propane, but we have not pursued any grants at this time,” district spokesperson Stephanie Smith said. “As we continue to build our fleet, propane buses may be a viable option for us.”

In the Lee’s Summit School District, “If there is an opportunity in the future, transportation staff will research and determine if the buses are a viable option,” spokesperson Katy Bergen said.

The Blue Springs School District, meanwhile, is not considering propane but rather has gone another alternative route with a portion of its bus fleet. Transportation Director Jeremy Morgan said the district has invested heavily in compressed natural gas buses – another cleaner burning fuel.