It’s significant the Knox County R-1 School District in northeast Missouri recently took possession of the first electric school bus to operate in the state. The district’s interest in reducing tailpipe emissions is a worthy goal.
However, it doesn’t address the cost of an electric bus and the fact that significant upstream emissions are necessary to charge the battery. At about three times the cost of a conventional or other alternative fuel bus, few if any school districts could afford to swap out their current fleets for electric models. And, the reality of power generation offsets any supposed emissions benefit. At least 60 percent of the energy needed to provide electricity for customers is lost in generation and transmission. With more than 70 percent of Missouri’s electricity generated by coal, the truth is electric vehicles generate substantial “displaced” emissions — disproportionately impacting those who live near power plants — in order to claim the absence of tailpipe emissions.
That’s why it’s important to recognize the leadership of state schools that are adopting a viable, economical clean-air fleet. For example, after adding propane autogas school buses last year, Kansas City Public Schools is not only saving money on fuel and maintenance but is improving air quality with verifiable lower emissions. Neosho, Grain Valley and Independence school districts report environmental benefits, along with year-after-year savings in fuel and maintenance.
Reducing emissions is why more school districts every day are adding propane buses to their fleets. In Missouri alone, school districts operate more than 300 propane buses, which is about the total number of electric buses operating in the entire country. Across the nation, 1.3 million students in more than 1,200 school districts ride to school in propane school buses every day.
The latest academic research adds weight to the propane bus argument:
• According to a West Virginia University study released in 2019, propane school buses reduce nitrogen oxides by at least 95 percent. In real-world applications of stop-and-go bus driving, diesel emissions are 34 times higher than with propane.
• A 2019 Georgia State study says diesel school bus fumes drive down test scores. The study correlated increased academic performance when children were exposed to lower levels of school bus emissions. Student test scores improved in math and English.
The local economic benefit is significant. Kansas City Public Schools pays 50 percent less per gallon for propane compared with diesel, for an expected savings of about $500,000 annually. It anticipates another $55,000 savings each year in maintenance costs and takes advantage of federal alternative tax credit rebates to further increase fuel savings. Independence School District estimates $2,000 savings per propane bus per year in fuel costs alone. That’s the budget they say can go directly to the school, not the fuel.
Schools have several funding opportunities today to assist with replacing diesel buses with cleaner, low-carbon propane models, including the Missouri Propane Education & Research Council’s Clean Bus Replacement Rebate that offers $2,000 per bus, or its zero interest financing on lease-purchase acquisitions that allow a district to stretch out payments with no interest expense. Recently the Missouri Propane Education & Research Council presented Liberty Public Schools a check for $20,000 for its purchase of 10 new Blue Bird propane school buses.
Reducing emissions to benefit student and community health is not only worthwhile, it’s a must-have. I encourage state school districts to join the 1,200 districts across the nation and consider buses fueled by propane.
Steve Ahrens is the president of the Missouri Propane Education & Research Council (MOPERC), based in Jefferson City.