Published in the Williamson County Sun March 2, 2013
When gasoline prices hit a peak in 2008, most of us just wearily pulled out our credit cards. Kirby Campbell, the very forward-thinking director of transportation at Leander Independent School District, was tired of grumbling. LISD had a half million dollars budgeted for fuel in 2008, and when diesel prices doubled, that money was gone after six months. Mr. Campbell decided to fight back and strike a personal blow for energy independence.
He knew he had to look at alternative fuels. He discovered that running just one bus on propane instead of diesel could save $2140 every year in fuel costs. Not only could he save on fuel, but because propane is considered clean energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Railroad Commission would offer grants to defray some of the costs of new propane buses. He promptly bought eleven brand new yellow school buses and soon added 26 more. LISD now saves $80,000 a year on fuel, and they plan to gradually add more propane buses to the fleet.
Kirby Campbell shows off one of his propane-fueled school buses
If you took high school chemistry you might remember that propane is a three carbon chain that is liquid under pressure. Even if you slept through chemistry you are familiar with propane. It can be hooked up to your barbecue grill for a tasty supper, and is available in just about every small town in America.
You might not know that propane is the hottest thing going as an alternative fuel for cars and trucks. Worldwide over 17 million vehicles run on propane, also called autogas. In Japan, 90% of taxis run on autogas. South Korea has 1.7 million autogas cars on the road, and in Turkey autogas has surpassed gasoline as a transportation fuel. Propane is not only cheaper than gasoline, but engines that run on propane also require less maintenance and last longer than diesel engines, another plus for the Leander school district.
In addition to the financial advantages of propane school buses, there are some tremendous environmental benefits. Children can now ride to school without being gassed by diesel exhaust. A diesel exhaust particle is a microscopic grain of carbon wrapped in some toxic organic compounds and heavy metals. On conventional school buses, diesel particles routinely seep into the cabin, exposing the unsuspecting children. Waiting in the bus line is even worse. When inhaled on a regular basis, diesel particles can contribute to asthma, chronic bronchitis, and even lung cancer.
Compared to an old diesel bus belching black smoke, propane buses emit almost no asthma-producing particles, less carbon monoxide, and fewer smog-producing chemicals and greenhouse gases. Mr. Campbell started up one of his new buses and we stood by the tailpipe to check it out. I could detect no visible exhaust and no odor. I had to put my nose 6 inches from the tailpipe before catching the slight whiff of a camp stove. (Please don’t try this at home. It’s low emission, not zero emission.)
Since propane is a byproduct of drilling for natural gas, the gas boom is creating an abundance of propane right here in Texas. Propane is refined right on our home territory, and we have enough left over to export. Since automotive transportation will remain dependent on fossil fuels for a while yet, we might as well burn our own fossil fuels, rather than importing petroleum from countries that may not have our best interests at heart.
A final factor influenced Kirby Campbell’s decision to try propane. It turns out that Georgetown is home to an entrepreneur who has been successfully promoting the use of propane for the last 20 years. Curtis Donaldson got his energy bona fides at Conoco where he was Coordinator of Alternative Fuel Marketing. In 1993 he took off on his own and started Clean Fueling Technologies (now CleanFUEL USA) right here in Georgetown. Mr. Donaldson’s company perfected a liquid phase injection system for trucks and buses which allowed increased engine power and lower emissions. CleanFUEL USA is certified to do after-market conversions on a variety of trucks and SUVs at the company’s offices on Halmar Cove. The company is also building and installing propane fueling stations all over the country, so Mr. Campbell could easily get his own propane fueling station and have it maintained locally. Mr. Campbell says for LISD propane was a win-win-win situation: environmentally friendly, economical, and made in America. He looks proudly at his yellow bus, “I just don’t know why every school district doesn’t get involved in this.”
Curtis Donaldson and Crystelle Markley of CleanFUEL USA
are installing propane dispensers all over the country