Utah school buses go green
The Salt Lake Tribune
April 13, 2009
Utah's yellow school buses are slowly turning green.
Sevier School District is the latest district in Utah -- and the first rural district --to start using clean-burning, compressed natural gas instead of traditional fuel. On Monday, the district celebrated its first natural gas bus, converted with the help of $10,000 in grant money from AAA and a $5,000 grant from the state.
Natural gas vehicles, which mostly use methane as fuel, can reduce exhaust emissions of carbon monoxide by 70 percent; non-methane organic gas by 87 percent; nitrogen oxides by 87 percent; and carbon dioxide by nearly 20 percent, according to NGVAmerica, an organization that advocates the use of natural gas.
"Basically we took the pollution down to almost nothing," said Lynn Julander, Sevier transportation supervisor.
Though everyone agrees the buses are better for the environment, the switch is difficult for many districts given the costs of conversion. Sevier is the third Utah district to start using compressed natural gas, said Robin Erickson, director of the Utah Clean Cities Coalition. The Jordan School District already has 44 such buses, and Alpine School District has one, she said.
Julander said the conversion could, in the long run, save Sevier about $2,000 a year because natural gas is about 7 cents a mile cheaper than typical fuel. Jim Hinckle, Jordan transportation director, said Jordan's natural gas buses also have lower maintenance costs and quieter engines.
Still, many Utah school districts don't have the money to switch, especially in light of budget cuts. While the buses lower fuel costs over time, they cost more up front.
Hinckle said a typical bus costs Jordan about $120,000 while a compressed natural gas bus ranges from $140,000 to $142,000.
Julander said Sevier recently paid about $18,000 to convert the 30-passenger bus to run on natural gas.
"Without the grants, it's pretty tough," Julander said.
Hinckle said it could also be difficult for some rural districts to convert because they don't have access to natural gas stations. Questar Gas supplies natural gas to 25 public and about 50 private stations throughout the state.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced plans earlier this year to work with Questar to increase that infrastructure, especially along I-15 from Idaho to Arizona. Ron Jibson, Questar Gas president and CEO, said the company will work this year to increase natural gas fueling capacity in Utah by 47 percent, including by building at least two new stations in southern Utah.
Darren Shepherd, Questar Gas spokesman, said it makes sense for Utah to switch to natural gas which is plentiful in the region: Utah and surrounding states hold an estimated 350 trillion cubic feet natural gas. He said the U.S. consumes about 22 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year.
"It's here in our own backyard," Jibson said. "It's really a great way to lessen dependence on foreign oil, and clean up our skies and cities."
Erickson said districts that convert buses help reduce pollution throughout Utah, where inversions and high levels of fine particulate matter and ozone are season hazards. Such pollution can cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.
"[Compressed natural gas] buses don't have particulate matter that lodges in the children's lungs," Erickson said. "If you were to put a hanky in the tail pipe of a compressed natural gas bus you would not see any carbon, any black soot, come out."