While numbers of hybrid-drive school buses in use nationwide remain low, some students in Miami, Fla., are already riding to and from school in electrified transit buses.
Miami-Dade Transit (MDT) is the 14th largest public transit system in the country and announced that it is adding five new diesel-electric hybrids to its existing fleet of 817 buses, and it announced that it recently electrified the propulsion system, radiator fans, and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in another 13 buses. MDT was already running 38 diesel-electric hybrids in its fleet, 25 of the buses being 60-foot New Flyers and 13 being 40-foot NABI hybrids with electrified accessories. The transit agency was also expected to add five new 40-foot Gillig hybrids this month.
It was unknown exactly how many Miami-area students might get to and from school on these hybrid transit buses. But one would think those who do rely on free bus passes might experience hybrid commutes well before the majority of kids who ride school buses.
Of course, transit agencies nationwide are better positioned to absorb the additional premium of hybrid buses compared to school districts. There are thousands of transit buses in cities across the country that run hybrid technology. In fact, a 2009 report by the Center on Globalization Governance and Competitiveness said 32 percent of U.S. transit buses have an alternative power source. While, alternative fuel only powers an estimated 10 percent of the nation's fleet of school buses, if that, it is estimated there are several hundred hybrid school buses in operation nationwide, based upon discussions with school bus manufacturers. This is ultimately due to up-front costs.
New, large school buses have seen steady price increases over the past several years due to advanced electronics and strict engine and emissions requirements from the EPA. It's not uncommon for school districts to already pay well over $100,000 for a new purchase. This price tag more than doubles when you're talking electric or hybrid, and that's not including additional costs of replacement batteries, shorter ranges the vehicles can drive between charges, and maintenance. It's about economies of scale that just have yet to be realized.
It's just that not enough is known yet about how the vehicles will function and perform. And in the school bus industry that spells a wait-and-see attitude among owners and operators. Available now is natural gas and propane fuel at less cost than diesel, which has gone through the roof lately. [Editor's note: An on-going survey being conducted by STN shows that nearly two-thirds of respondents are saying spikes in fuel prices are negatively affecting their operations in a variety of ways, from cutting bus runs and activity trips to reducing the budgetary amount that will be available to transportation next school year. We'll report more on this soon.]
But then there are also the infrastructure costs of CNG and propane to deal with. Still, proponents say that those fuels are more than just a bridge to electric or true emission-less fuel like hydrogen that are years if not decades away from acceptance and market saturation. And what about lifecycle costs of these buses, including hybrids?
As shown in this month's magazine issue, more data is slowly becoming available from fleets on the true costs and effects of propane and natural gas as well as hybrids and biodiesel.
What are your thoughts? Do you run alt fuels in your fleet, and do you have data?