By Michael F. Carmichael
Oct. 6, 2011
What would link a Ford Mustang tearing up the track at a NASCAR event and a big yellow school bus picking up kids on a suburban street?
The link is Roush Enterprises - in the one instance, it’s their racing partnership called Roush Fenway Racing - and in the other, it’s Roush CleanTech, which is powering big yellow school buses and a bunch of other commercial vehicles with essentially zero-emissions propane autogas.
Roush CleanTech has been doing research and development on a number of alternative fuels including helping Ford (one of their main customers and partners) set a land speed record with a hydrogen-powered Fusion. “About five years ago we began looking at where we wanted to put our chips in the alternative fuels space,” says Todd Mouw, vice president of sales and marketing. “We liked propane a lot so, because this is clean technology, we named the division Roush CleanTech.” But, Mouw says, the name is generic enough to enable them to branch out into other alternative fuel technologies in the future.
Most of the alternative-fuel vehicles Roush is involved with - whether it’s those big yellow school buses or F-150 (or bigger) pickup-based commercial trucks - bear the familiar Ford Blue Oval (even if it’s under the hood and not on it).
“Fleets are most keenly aware of the need for alternative energy because they have the most vehicles and use the most fuel,” says Mouw. “They know they can’t afford to continue to be dependent on foreign oil. They want to be good corporate stewards and use a cleaner fuel that’s produced here in the United States. They understand the business case for propane now and it’s just a matter of beginning to roll it into their fleets.”
Who’s beginning to roll? National fleets like Frito-Lay and municipal fleets like Cincinnati and San Antonio - and other transportation providers such as school districts and mass transit systems. “They’ve run enough test vehicles to prove the economics make sense,” Mouw explains, “and after that they begin to preach the clean, green aspects of propane.”
What is propane autogas?
It’s actually a byproduct of the normal refining process that takes oil (from abroad or here) and turns it into gasoline. That pretty much ensures that, as long as we’re refining oil (or processing natural gas, another propane source), we’ll have propane autogas available as an alternative fuel source. It runs in gasoline and diesel engines with little modification - and the engines run cleaner, so there’s less maintenance expense and downtime for fleet operators. It produces slightly lower mileage but that’s more than overcome by other cost factors - especially the cost per gallon of propane autogas which can be as much as $2.00 cheaper than gasoline and an even bigger bargain when compared with diesel.
With “normal” filling stations on every corner and with fleet vehicle yards usually having their own sources of fueling and supply capability, why add propane autogas to the mix?
“Putting in a propane fueling station is a lot less expensive than either gasoline or diesel,” Mouw says. There are far fewer environmental issues and there are currently tax incentives that make the final cost close to zero. Mouw says there are probably more than 10,000 existing stations, primarily for the fleet owner, but public ones are increasing at locations such as U-Haul, Flying J and others. He predicts that it won’t be that much longer before traditional gas stations will be adding propane autogas to their fuel mix - just as some of them are adding electric vehicle charging stations.
The fueling process itself is very similar to adding regular gasoline or diesel fuel. You pull up to a pump, insert your credit card, remove the nozzle and insert it in the vehicle.
In a recent speech to an Alaska audience, Mouw pointed out that the U.S. is exporting about 2 billion gallons of propane. The average fleet vehicle uses about 3,000 gallons of fuel a year, with more than 650,000 fleet vehicles out there. If those vehicles could be converted to propane, that would add to our energy security, reduce emissions significantly and lower the operating costs for their owners. “We’ve got an energy solution staring us in the eyes,” Mouw says emphatically. “There should be no excuse, no excuse [for making the switch.] Even without the current government subsidies fleet operators can still save significant money.”
One company that’s more than ready to assist school districts to save money is the leading maker of those big yellow school buses, Blue Bird.
Blue Bird has an interesting history. Its first school bus was built on a Ford Model T chassis and still exists at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. It was one of the first school buses to utilize steel construction instead of wood, and that kind of attention to the safety of its young occupants is baked into every design - including that of its new Vision which is powered by one of the Roush-modified Ford engines for propane autogas use.
Phil Horlock is president and CEO of Blue Bird. A former Ford executive with extensive global experience who still retains his U.K. accent, Horlock says that propane is not new to Blue Bird. “For about 20 years we’ve been selling propane-powered buses. About 18 months ago we started talking seriously with Ford and Roush CleanTech. The Roush folks know how to get the most out of an engine. They’re able to get us better horsepower, better torque, improved fuel economy, a larger range and a five-year warranty - as opposed to the industry standard of two years.”
Horlock is asked what influences the purchase decision process for school boards when they’re looking at buying new buses. “Green technology is important for the children, for all of us. But, it’s new. They’re used to running diesel engines - they’ve been doing that for years. The compelling decision point on buying propane is the operating cost. A gallon of propane is about $1.50 while diesel is about $4.00 [based on bulk contracts with suppliers as opposed to filling up at a corner gas station].” So, says Horlock, “They save an average of $3,000-$4,000 per year - per bus. If you have a 100-unit fleet you could be saving $500,000 a year [in fuel savings and reduced maintenance costs].”
Horlock’s marketing executive, Erin Lake, points out one example - a school district in Texas that each year receives a check of $350,000, representing a $.50 a gallon tax rebate and says it is not atypical. Additionally, there are other programs - both state and federal - that help defray the initial cost of the buses.
Horlock says that the propane buses are much quieter than diesel models and they produce “zero emissions out of the tailpipe.” That would be a welcome change from having the classroom windows open near the end of a lovely spring day with the waiting buses belching diesel fumes into the room.
Blue Bird is committed to the use of alternative-fuel buses and, says Horlock, “We sell more than twice the number of alternative-fueled vehicles of our competitors combined.” That includes, besides the new propane-powered Vision, the propane-powered Mini-Bird - a smaller version that most commonly transports sports teams or special needs students.
In Flint, Mich., the Mass Transportation Authority is also adding smaller propane-powered buses to its fleet where they will provide service that goes beyond the regular large-bus scheduled routes.
They’ll be propane-powered because, as Ed Benning, the MTA’s general manager explains, the original fuel choice for the vehicles was compressed natural gas [CNG] and “we would have needed a separate facility for the generation of the compressed natural gas, special venting and fueling of our vehicles away from the day-to-day facilities - and we have 11 facilities county-wide, plus our maintenance facility.” All told, the cost to retrofit the 12 MTA facilities would have far exceeded the $5 million they had on hand from a federal grant to purchase new vehicles.
“With propane,” Benning explains, “we found we could set up fueling stations for around $20,000 at each of our facilities. That was far less than the $1.2 million for each that was projected for the CNG option.”
That is just the beginning of Benning’s “win-win” decision to switch to alternative fuels. “The propane is a much cleaner burn with the engine and the output in the community will be a much cleaner operating environment. And, the turn-around timing for the training of our maintenance employees is rather short.”
Current plans call for the MTA to purchase between 50 and 60 new propane-powered “paratransit” vehicles - the ones that Benning describes as providing door-to-door service for the disabled, seniors and even, in some neighborhoods, the general public. They’ll be replacing vans that “today on the road have between 500,000 and 600,000 miles on them. Some may look better than others but you’d never guess they have that many miles on them.”
While Flint may have some major problems, Benning’s MTA is thinking way outside the box to provide the city and surrounding Genesee County with affordable mass transit. “Additionally,” he says, “we’re working with Kettering University professors who are taking one of our 45-passenger, diesel fixed-route buses and converting it to become an electric-propane vehicle. If that’s successful, we can do that to lengthen the life of our vehicles until the market provides the next generation of buses.”
As they say on late-night television “Wait! There’s more!” Benning is planning on building a separate “next generation” fueling site of his own through a U.S. Department of Transportation grant. It will allow for a CNG fueling station for a test fleet of over-the-road CNG-powered buses that would travel as much as 70 miles one-way. There will be a learning laboratory for students interested in alternative fuels. And, it will also include a solar farm that would power two buildings as well as the equipment needed to generate a supply of hydrogen as yet another alternative fuel source.
The idea of hydrogen power has led Benning to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a hydrogen-electric vehicle that would use fuel cells and travel 350 miles a day, “which is very appealing to us,” he says. This would be a significant improvement over an electric-only version that will travel about 40 miles before needing to be recharged.
If the solar farm works as intended at the alternative fueling station, then Benning intends to add solar power to all 11 of his other facilities, which essentially would take them off the main power grid.
Phase two of the alternative fueling station involves a public-private partnership - possibly with T. Boone Pickens, the legendary oilman who has actively been promoting alternative fuels - to make the facility open to the public to provide access to propane, hydrogen and CNG, as well as electric vehicle charging stations.
Ground for the alternative fueling site was broken in September and, as Benning says, “there’s a great deal of interest in where we’re going with this.”