The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Education

October 13, 2013

School buses to fill up on natural gas at South Buffalo CNG station

It looks like a school bus, but it doesn't sound or smell like one.

Alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas (CNG) and propane are making the ride to school cleaner and cheaper.

Valley Lines Inc. in South Buffalo Township is among a growing number of transportation companies and schools turning to alternative fuels such as CNG and propane in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Valley Lines plans to open a CNG pumping station to the public at its Sarver Road site in South Buffalo in the next few months.

It will be the only such fueling station in the Alle-Kiski Valley.

The South Buffalo bus company has been using CNG buses to transport pupils in the Butler Area and Armstrong school districts for the last two years and is offering the alternative-fuel buses to Freeport Area School District next year.

School buses are joining the ranks of other commercial fleet vehicles making the switch from diesel to CNG, such as those owned by Waste Management Inc., UPS, FedEx and Giant Eagle. Public transit systems in Erie and Indiana County have made the switch, too.

Gone is the rumbling clap of the diesel engine and nasty fumes.

€œThere's no doubt that the cleaner air is attractive to school districts,€ said Bill Clepper, president and CEO of Valley Lines.

Pollution from diesel-fueled buses prompted the state to pass the Diesel-Powered Motor Vehicle Idling Act, effective in 2009, to limit how long buses can idle in one spot.

Then there's the cheaper price of CNG.

€œSchool districts are fighting for every buck, and this is something that can help decrease their fuel cost,€ said Clepper.

More CNG buses coming

Valley Lines, which dispatches school buses from its sites in South Buffalo and Summit Township in Butler County, keeps adding CNG buses to its fleet. They now number 50 out of the company's 200-plus school buses.

Those new buses could make their way to Freeport Area School District next year.

€œWe're at the beginning stages of this,€ said Todd O'Shell, transportation director for Freeport Area School District.

Valley Lines is under contract to provide diesel school buses only because bus manufacturers haven't been producing the mid-sized school bus, which is preferred by the district.

But in 2015, Thomas Built Buses is expected to have mid-sized vehicles that Clepper plans to buy.

€œWe toured Valley Lines' South Butler and Butler facilities to see what the future looks like, and the efficiency is impressive,€ O'Shell said. €œWe're looking forward to the option of fueling our vehicles with alternative fuels, which comes down to being green and economics.€

If prices for compressed natural gas stay low, the district will realize savings in fuel costs, he said.

Butler Area School District, which has been running Valley Lines' CNG buses along with some of its diesel models, expects to save between $50,000 and $75,000 on fuel this school year, according to Brenda Collins, supervisor of transportation at Butler Area School District.

The cost of CNG fuel has ranged from $1.99 to $2.25 a gallon for the district this year, according to Collins; diesel has cost about double that, $3.50 to $4.30.

CNG appealed to us mainly because of the cost savings,€ she said.

The district is in its second year of using CNG buses.

€œWe haven't had any problems with them so far,€ Collins said, €œespecially in the winter, when things can go wrong.€

The bounty of natural gas in the region, particularly the promise of natural gas contained in Marcellus shale, appears to be driving the technology and lower fuel costs.

Fueling stations sparse

But finding conveniently located CNG fueling stations has been a stumbling block for years.

There is traction now in the CNG market as new facilities are springing up monthly in the region, according to Rick Price, executive director of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities.

He predicts that a growing number of public CNG stations will dot the region.

A number of large companies have begun making the switch to compressed natural gas, which is selling for less than $2 per gasoline gallon equivalent.

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