At transportation company GO Riteway, talk of using alternative fuels is more than just idle chatter, even though idling is part of the discussion.
GO Riteway has added 10 propane-fueled school buses to its fleet, which already includes airport shuttle vans powered by the fuel.
Adding more propane vehicles to its fleet serves several purposes, including reducing tailpipe emissions, insulating the company against price swings common with gasoline and diesel fuel, and possibly cutting down on overall operating expenses, company executives said.
"We have a variety of different vehicles using propane," said Wendy Bast, corporate development director and third-generation Bast family member to be working at GO Riteway.
Propane, also known as liquefied petroleum gas or autogas, has been used worldwide as a vehicle fuel for decades, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Stored under pressure inside a tank, propane turns into a colorless, odorless liquid. As pressure is released, the liquid vaporizes and turns into gas that is used for combustion, the Energy Department says.
While it has been used as a motor vehicle fuel for decades, its use in the Untied States is not widespread.
According to the Propane Education and Research Council, there are more than 270,000 on-road propane vehicles in the United States.
There are 2,705 propane stations in the U.S., according to the Energy Department.
That compares with 168,000 gasoline stations, more than half of which also offer diesel for sale, according to the Diesel Technology Forum.
Early results encouraging
Adding more propane-fueled vehicles is not an indictment of other fuels, said Bast and Jason Ebert, GO Riteway fleet and facilities manager.
It's simply another way for the company to research whether it can operate more efficiently.
At any given time, the company has 500 vehicles on the road across southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
Propane school buses are "relatively new for us," Bast said. "It's definitely going to take some time to see what all the economic benefits may or may not be long term."
The early results are positive, with the company racking up 4.4 million miles on propane vehicles since it added the fuel to its shuttle van fleet several years ago, Ebert said.
"When we look at new vehicles we want to make sure it makes business sense," Bast said.
"We're definitely looking at it on a performance level," Ebert added.
Propane is a by-product of natural gas processing and crude oil refining. It accounts for about 2% of the energy used in the U.S., the Energy Department says.
Propane costs about $1 a gallon less than gasoline, Ebert said.
But a gallon of propane has a smaller amount of energy than a gallon of gasoline.
If you get 100 miles out of a gallon of gasoline, you're only going to get 90 miles from the same amount of propane, Ebert said.
School buses, by the nature of what they do, start, stop and idle a lot, even if GO Riteway tries to eliminate it. "Idling happens," Bast said. The new GO Riteway propane buses emit 60 percent less carbon monoxide and up to 25 percent fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline-fueled buses, the company says.
The buses will be used to transport approximately 5,500 Oak Creek students each school day.
Safe in school buses
So, is propane safe to use in school buses? Yes, said Bast and Ebert. The fuel tanks on propane vehicles are reinforced steel, Ebert said.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about propane not being as safe as gasoline," Ebert said. "It's actually probably a little less volatile than gasoline itself."
Adding propane-fueled vehicles is a trend in the transportation industry, Bast said. "Certainly in the school bus industry you are going to start to see more propane units," she said. "That's definitely starting to happen now."
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