CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Department of Education is hoping to save millions by hopping on the alternative fuel bandwagon.
A deal is in the works to convert to propane-powered school buses, which could create more than $3,000 in savings in fuel costs per bus per year, according to the department's executive director of transportation, Ben Shew.
"That's about a 50 percent reduction," Shew said. "We use about six million gallons of fuel annually statewide. When you consider the cost of diesel fuel, that's about $24 million. With this, we think we can reduce that cost close to $10 million a year."
Shew recently met with Bret Chandler, managing director of Charleston-based investment group, Propane Fuel Technologies LLC, to discuss the potential for school buses.
The two will address transportation directors from all of the state's school systems next month in Morgantown to provide more details about the next phase of the plan.
Thanks to Chandler, and his ties to Texas-based company, CleanFUEL USA, West Virginia is one of several states across the country that will benefit from a federal Department of Energy grant to build propane-fueling stations and fund vehicle conversions.
"I'd like to see West Virginia get as much of this grant money as I can. Liquid propane happens to be a really good fuel for school buses, and it's allows school systems around the country to significantly reduce costs," Chandler said. "Liquid propane is the third most used fuel in the world. In order for us to catch up with the rest of the world, it certainly is not a bad idea for the general public to get educated."
Liquid propane, or autogas, is a natural byproduct of oil and natural gas drilling, and 90 percent of it that is used in the U.S. comes from the U.S., according to Chandler.
While propane fuel is typically more expensive than compressed natural gas, when it comes to infrastructure and costs for building filling stations, propane is far cheaper.
School systems in 27 states have already implemented propane-powered school buses, according to Shew.
Each year, West Virginia's public schools purchase about 275 new buses to replace buses when they near 12 years of use -- totaling to about $20 million in annual education spending on transportation.
In October, the state Board of Education approved a request from the transportation department to include propane as an alternative fuel for school buses.
Contract bids have already been made, and propane buses have passed the test on "West Virginia roads," Shew said.
Now, county school systems need to be receptive to the idea of change.
"Anytime there's change involved, there's apprehension. The proof is in the pudding, but at the same time, we don't have that much experience with this in West Virginia," Shew said.
Aside from the financial benefits, Shew said he hopes that the Department of Education will be able to better educate West Virginia's youth on environmental health through the initiative as well.
"We're actually going to see a reduction in greenhouse gasses, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and emissions. Not only are we saving money, but we're providing cleaner air in and around our schools," he said. "It's not that the industry isn't trying to improve -- diesel engines have become much more eco-friendly, but propane is still cleaner."
The Department of Education's efforts are aligned with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force, which was formed in July.
Just last week, the Kanawha County Commission also furthered its efforts with alternative fuels, expressing interest in converting more county vehicles to both natural gas and propane.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org