School buses to fill up on natural gas at South Buffalo CNG station
By Mary Ann Thomas
Published: Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
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.
“There'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.
“School 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.
“We'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.
“We toured Valley Lines' South Butler and Butler facilities to see what the future looks like, and the efficiency is impressive,” O'Shell said. “We'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.
“We haven't had any problems with them so far,” Collins said, “especially 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.
Currently, there are just a handful of public CNG stations in southwestern Pennsylvania, including EQT Corp. in Pittsburgh's Strip District, American Natural in Pittsburgh's South Side, Giant Eagle in Crafton and, most recently, a Giant Eagle GetGo in Cranberry Township and at Waste Management Inc. in Washington, Pa.
Valley Lines will join them.
“We expect around 25 to 50 regular customers a year, which will mostly be pickup trucks, some cars, and commercial vehicles,” Clepper said.
The wealth of local natural gas and gas pipelines in Butler — whether leading from Marcellus shale or traditional gas wells — is making tapping the fuel easier.
While CNG has been used as fuel for years, it's only been in the last two years that it's becoming more visible.
“I think the market is in a good place,” Price said.
“Every day, I see more truck fleets, mass transits, trash haulers and school districts moving to CNG and propane,” he said.
Clepper paid a little more than $1 million to install his system in Butler to tap into a nearby gas line, then compress, store and dispense it to a pump, just like the ones at gas stations.
He applied for energy grants to help with the expense, and he came up empty.
But that didn't stop Clepper, as he believes that it's a good investment that will be paid off in five years.
“This will give me a competitive edge,” he said.
Whether someone decides to go with CNG or propane is an individual decision, according to Price.
“Everybody has to look at their own situation,” he said.
Proximity to natural gas reserves and lines determines how cheaply the alternative fuel can be delivered in the long run.
Clepper said he prefers the performance of CNG over propane.
Plus, “with natural gas, we have a lot of it,” he said. “We feel that's where the future is going.”
Whether it's CNG or propane, Price said, “this is a great success for the area because we are using homegrown fuel, which creates energy security that you don't have with petroleum-based fuels from other countries.
“And it's right under our feet.”
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 724-226-4691.
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