Propane powers ‘rookie’ Link bus

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January 31, 2014

By Rachel Holzknecht '15

Mike Juntunen, Link Transportation Director

A cleaner burning "rookie" bus in the Link fleet is the start of the College of Saint Benedict's move to alternative fuel.

As the newest member of the 11-bus fleet, the propane bus is the schools' main runner, traveling between the CSB and SJU campuses 16 to 25 times each day. The bus is fueled and serviced on site. Link Transportation Director Mike Juntunen said it's too early to begin analyzing data.

The CSB Transportation Department is tracking everything from mileage to ridership to cost in order to gauge the performance of the bus. Juntunen and his staff will compare those statistics to the diesel buses at the close of the school year.

"We really don't have a handle on it yet because the bus only has 17,000 miles on it," Juntunen said. "But we know it's a cleaner burn. We're hoping this bus will be a lot cheaper as far as maintenance - it shouldn't have the problems the diesels run into."

The Transportation Department is scheduled to sell or trade in a diesel bus each year for the next three years. Juntunen said the department plans to purchase another propane-powered bus if the yearly data proves favorable and manufacturer Blue Bird's next propane model features a better suspension system and a larger fuel tank capacity.

"As we need to replace diesel buses, the plan is to build up the fleet of propane and/or other newer technologies as they come along," said Judy Purman, CSB director of sustainability.

The move to propane

The Transportation Department and CSB Sustainability Office discussed the possibility of turning to alternative fuel for several years before purchasing the propane bus in July 2013. Juntunen said he considered hybrid electric vehicles, compressed natural gas and other alternatives before selecting propane for its cost and cleaner burn. CSB and SJU have both agreed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

Employing propane over diesel reduces carbon emissions by emitting fewer greenhouse gases. CleanFuel USA said that replacing diesel with propane produces 70 percent fewer smog-producing hydrocarbons, 50 percent less carbon monoxide, 20 percent less nitrogen oxide and 12 percent less carbon dioxide.

Juntunen said that propane-powered engines are relatively new to the market, and this is the first year Blue Bird has developed a propane version of the diesel-powered bus. The propane model is cheaper than commercial-grade diesel buses because the venture is a work-in-progress.

Propane fuel was half the cost of diesel fuel, but a recent price hike from severe weather doubled the cost of a gallon of propane, with expectations of even higher prices through winter. Historically, propane prices tend to go down in the spring.

"The diesels average about 5.5 miles to the gallon, and propane (averages) 3.5 to 4," Juntunen said. "But it's still (historically) cheaper running propane because you can get almost two gallons for the cost of one compared to diesel."

Juntunen said propane's availability is one reason for its typically lower cost. Ninety percent of the United States' propane supply is produced domestically.

"This was 'out of the box' and a risky move in that until you try something, you don't know how it is going to work," Purman said. "They could have easily stuck with what 'we've always done' but they didn't. Hats off to the Transportation Department for this innovative approach."