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Plugging In for a Better Tomorrow: The School Bus ‘Solution’

Hybrids are too often thought of simply in terms of personal vehicles.

They are also penetrating the big vehicle market space. 509699620_5e4c9a11ac_m.jpgConsider the average delivery truck and all its starts/stops. There is a lot of energy to capture there, which is why UPS is pursuing hybrids. And, as per Walmart and its hybrid trucks, they are hitting the semi-trailer world. There are also efforts to apply hybrids to trash trucks and offer the opportunity to silence those squealing brakes at 5:45 am. Ann Arbor, Michigan, has started to get hybrid buses as is London. And, well, now they’re coming to a school system (maybe) near you.

As per Badger, at Daily Kos, Lake Chelan, Washington, took delivery of a Plug-In Hybrd Electric school Bus (PHEB) in summer 2007 as part of a national effort to develop and test the technology.

As per AutoBlogGreen, Manatee County, Florida, is also part 29467930_351c9bff23_m.jpgof this "as part of the Plug-In Hybrid Electric School Bus Project. Designed to test the viability of the new buses, a hybrid and a control bus will travel the same route, alternating every two weeks, for a period of two years which should equate to more than a million miles of service each."

This sort of research and data collection, with open publication of the data and research analysis, is required to help make "hyped concepts" into real options for local government administrators around the country.

And, those in the test program are, from everything that I am hearing and seeing, ecstatic about the buses. Many in the blogosphere had a chance to hear this first hand as the Austin Independent School District brought there PHESB to Netroots Nation for a morning. And, the words were glowing, praising the bus’s performance and very happy about the about 80% reduction in fuel use.

Take a look at the objective: "fuel economy improvements of 70 to 100 percent will be realized on the plug-in hybrid vehicles plus a reduction in emissions of up to 90 percent."

A doubling of fuel economy? Think it of this way, there are in NY state alone 46,000 school buses … Rising fuel costs have hammered these school systems in recent years, leading to reductions in services.

Now, these buses are not cheap, that is in terms of their "cost to buy". They are now in the range, last I heard, of about $225,000 each as opposed to a ‘typical’ school bus of $75,000. Wow! Amid economic hard times that is a pretty hard sticker shock to deal with for any school system. But, these plug-ins are far from the1804399946_91bc581e0d_m.jpg mass-produced, assembly line stage, but the test and evaluation versions. For the future, the question that requires answering: For a doubling of fuel efficiency (and 90% reduction in pollution), what is the price differential that is worth paying? According to Badger’s discussion:

A 100 bus order will drop the price per bus to about $140,000, which, according to our Transportation Director, will make the 15 year life-cycle cost comparable to a traditional school bus costing around $78,000.

Now, some don’t look at this so optimistically. The Christian Science Monitor had an article on plug-in hybrid school buses in 2007. This is how they write on this:

Each of the first 19 buses costs over $200,000 – more than double the cost of a regular model. At that price, they won’t pay for themselves over their lives, even with superior fuel savings. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem because until about 1,000 buses roll off assembly lines, the cost of production will keep prices high.

"Won’t pay for themselves …"

Okay, but what happens past those 1000 buses, as the wheels go round and round …

Note the level of mass production that is required to make these cost effective … 1000 vehicles in some form of sustained production process.

Even after manufacturing efficiencies and competition bring the price down, plug-in hybrid school buses may still cost $40,000 more than a regular bus. But at that point, they will pay for themselves in just a few years with lower maintenance and fuel costs, analysts say.

Okay, the will cost more to “buy” but … note the payback period, a few years. They will cost far (FAR) less to own as decade-old busses are the norm, not the exception, for most school systems.

Nation-wide, this means that school buses burn a little more than 1/2 of a day’s oil use. The plug-in hybrids offer an opportunity to cut that in half. A path toward the equivalent of 5+ million barrels of oil production per year. (Translate this to cash: That is roughly a reduction of US imports of oil by $250 million per year at $50 per barrel.) Could we find a path for, let’s say, $500 million (total) for the Federal government to spark a move to PHESBs? If so, it would sound like a great investment stream for me. Far from a silver bullet solution to the nation’s problems, but an interesting Silver BB?

But, let’s go back to an item.

"Won’t pay for themselves …"

Okay, time to ask the question: is it only fuel costs that should be on the table?

Thinking past stove-piped accounting

We already see that this step can help deal with our oil demand and, therefore, help with Peak Oil and security/financial implications of lowering oil use. 133237528_9f4a2244cc_m.jpgThat is good and we can monetize this value. But, it is not a value that the school system directly sees and not a value part of school board accounting.

PHEBs / PHEVs offer the potential, with a smart(er) grid, to provide backup power during emergencies. What might a fleet of 100 PHEBs mean for an area losing power due to a hurricane? Portable emergency generators? This is a value that could be monetized but is not part of the decision making.

Well, there is that minor thing called Global Warming. Cutting 5 million barrels of oil, roughly 250 million+ gallons, which translates quite roughly into over five billion pounds or more than 2.5 million tons of CO2. With a CO2 fee of, let us say, $25 per ton, that is over $62 million of value, per year. At $50 ton, $120 million that would help pay that purchase differential for many PHEBs. But, that sort of fee is not part of any school system’s decision-making, it seems.

Even further, costs to society. Let us start to think further, to consider costs, very serious costs related to diesel buses, and figure out how they might (should) fit into decision-making for PHEBs: for school districts and public transit systems. While the exact degree of total impact is unclear, consider what happens with these buses each day. Consider the school buses.

In the United States more than 23 million284200241_27b406e8ea_m.jpg schoolchildren board school buses each day. Of the country’s half million or so school buses, most are aging diesel-powered vehicles. We are all familiar with the black plumes of smoke billowing from the tailpipes of diesel trucks and buses, and just as we would not hand our child a cigarette, we would hardly allow our children to stand behind a smoke-belching school bus.

Yet …

The truth is that tailpipe exhaust often seeps inside the bus, sometimes in concentrations far higher than the amount outside the bus, and diesel exhaust is linked to a host of public health hazards.

Who is counting the health impacts on the children and674173345_1dfbf51afd_m.jpg others in the community? How are an asthma sufferer’s more frequent crises accounting in school transportation decisions as to whether to buy PHEBs? How do we account for the lung cancers that could be avoided?

If we could move beyond stove-piped calculations of cost-benefit relationships, the decision to buy PHEBs would become a no-brainer.

Making the Enegy Smart Choice the Right Choice, the Easy Choice …

If this is so self-evident, why isn’t it happening? Well, there is that sticker shock (worsened in bad budget times) and the reality that we live and work in a stove-piped world. Right now, there are communities striving to work together to build a purchase order of 300 buses and, therefore, to start driving down that purchase price sticker shock and begin the move to make these a nation-wide option. This, however, is a slow path toward mass penetration of the bus market. Amid a $1 trillion (or so) stimulus package, can we energize Energize America to find a path to get PHESBs into communities across the country on a faster path.

What if the Federal Government, as part of the coming stimulus package, would commit to provide $100 million / year to spark the PHESB industry and to make PHESBs the standard for school systems?

  • Capacity: According to discussions with the manufacturer and several people involved in the test program, unlike plug-in cars, there are not major bottlenecks to a rapid ramp up of the program. It is a modification of existing bus designs/systems, and there is much spare space for putting in batteries with the added controls (relatively) straightforward to put into the system. Manufacturing should (according to what I’ve been told) be able to handle a serious shift to PHESBs from regular diesel buses.
  • Investment cost: Okay, sticker price. Is this really where we want to spend $100 million? Let’s think about this for a moment. For $100 million per year, even over a decade, this would lead to a reduction by 2020 of about 5 million barrels/year of US oil demand. Even without discussing Peak Oil, this represents easily $250 million dollars per year of reduced oil imports. And, this means even more than that in terms of reduced costs to local school systems across the country. For perhaps $1 billion, for a decade-long program (and which is likely a high figure for what is required), PHESBs could be the standard and save school systems, directly, $100s of millions per year in reduced fuel costs. And, of course, this is not even counting those minor little benefits like reduced diesel pollution, electrical services options (think school bus powering a school fair, without the engine running), and emergency services capabilities (how might post-Katrina have gone if there had been 3000 PHESBs within easy driving range, ready to provide power services to hospitals, shelters, grocery stores, etc …). Thus, there is an upfront investment cost for real and sustained long term value across many domains.
  • Related material at Get Energy Smart! NOW!!!. And, this is a subject that I’ve written on before, in multiple angles, thus this piece builds on those previous discussions … thank you for those who have seen pieces before and persevered anyway.
  • There is another, quite serious, element to this need to consider the costs more broadly. Other than school children, who is riding buses? The wealthiest, the powerful? No, in general, public buses are used by those lower on the economic spectrum. There is a social equity question here. Who are we, as a society, exposing to these fumes? What communities are most struck by additional diesel fumes that could be avoided?
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A Siegel

A Siegel

Striving to Get Energy Smart! NOW! to help Energize America toward a prosperous and climate-friendly future.