School districts statewide will be able to specify alternative fuels, especially CNG, for their school buses after Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill that was approved by legislators last month.
SB 275 was approved by the House and Senate on March 14 and was then sent to Gov. Herbert's desk for signature. The bill was signed on March 28.
Murrell Martin, the state director of student transportation at the Utah State Office of Education, said the new law removes the obstacles that some local school districts identified during an alternative fuel symposium January as school districts were identified as the No. 1 potential user.
The law allows an "interlocal entity" — defined by the state as political or corporate groups separate from the public agency that creates it, including representatives of the governor's office, the House or Senate, the Utah League of Cities and Towns, school districts, gas companies and the Utah Petroleum Marketers and Retailers Association — to facilitate the conversion to alternative fuel vehicles and construction and operation of the required infrastructure and facilities. These interlocal entities also would have the power to identify funding options. The bill provides for $5 million annually for the cost of building alt-fuel infrastructure.
SB 275 also directs the Public Service Commission to "immediately" initiate and explore options and opportunities for advancing and promoting alternative fuels for cleaner emissions and provides for a cost recovery mechanism for a gas corporation that pays for natural gas fueling stations and related facilities.
A report from the Public Service Commssion to the governor's office and legislative committees is due by Sept. 30.
Martin said that Cody Stewart, Gov. Herbert's energy advisor, was in attendance at the alt-fuel symposium and heard from Utah Association for Pupil Transportation (UAPT) President Danny Cowan about the obstacles preventing school districts from converting to alternative-fuel vehicles. The main obstacle is the incremental cost difference of about $26,000 between purchasing a new CNG school bus and a diesel bus. Martin said the others are the availability of CNG- or propane-fueling stations and safety of the fuel and the necessary modifications to bus garages to add venting and alarm systems to deal with any leaks.
Also present at the symposium for representatives from Cummins for CNG and from Ford and ROUSH CleanTech for propane.
"Our position has been that of being fuel neutral, but we have recognized that Utah has unique gas fields and supply," said Martin. "Several areas of Utah are still not set up for CNG and won't be for a long time, so districts in those areas are looking at propane."
Former Gov. Jon Huntsman led the charge to provide a "CNG corridor" along Interstate 15, an effort also championed by Gov. Herbert, Martin added.
Under the new law, Martin said natural gas company Questar Gas would build fueling stations on land donated by participating school districts. Martin explained that, on one part of the land, Questar would build a quick-fill station for the general public at a commerial rate and for public fleets at a government rate. On the other part part of the land, where the school buses are located, a time-fill station would be built off of the same compressor for the general public and other government fleets. The district would also be required to handle total facility up-keep.
"It's a win-win for everybody," Martin concluded.
Jordan School District located in the suburbs of Salt Lake City has the most experience in the state with CNG, dating back for at least a decade. Martin said the district operates about 60 CNG buses.