podcast

Propane and Electric School Buses: A Symbiotic Relationship

March 6, 2024

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Blue Bird’s Alternative Power Team is joined by ROUSH CleanTech Vice President of Sales, Ryan Zic, to compare and contrast propane and electric school buses in terms of fueling, cost, and future resiliency. The subject-matter experts also discuss combined fleets and how the two fuel options can work together to bring cleaner air to students and communities.

Transcript:

00:00:05:05 – 00:00:19:07
Speaker 1
Hello and welcome to a Bird’s Eye View. In this series, we’ll be discussing everything school bus related. From the perspective of a leading school bus manufacturer. I’m Brad Beauchamp, alternative fuels manager at Bluebird.

00:00:19:09 – 00:00:41:23
Speaker 2
I’m Steve Whaley, business development at Bluebird. We’re going to discuss my favorite topic all things propane this season. And I’m Albert Burleigh, vice president of alternative fuels for Bluebird. So let’s hop on the bus and let’s get started.

00:00:42:01 – 00:01:07:23
Speaker 1
Welcome to a bird’s Eye View. In this episode, we’ll be discussing EV and propane, a symbiotic relationship. And I’ve got two experts here Albert Burley and Ryan Zick. Albert. So, we know obviously, EVs get all the attention right now, and we know that even propane or both, from an emission standpoint, what comes out of the bus? better than gas or diesel, right?

00:01:08:00 – 00:01:16:13
Speaker 1
Yeah. So, tell me a little bit about, you know, the relationship between what we build an EV and propane. I know we build a little bit of everything, right?

00:01:16:14 – 00:01:37:05
Speaker 2
We do? Yeah. We, we can offer all fuel types, that are available on school busses today, a Bluebird. So gas, diesel, propane and EV. And you’re right. EV is getting a lot of the attention. obviously, there’s a lot of growth in the whole EV world right now. Automotive, starting much earlier now and school bus as well.

00:01:37:07 – 00:01:58:15
Speaker 2
And a lot of the funding that is available today through the federal government is geared, you know, primarily to EV, which is drawing a lot of attention to it. it’s a great product. We’ve been selling it now since 2018 and have sold over 1500 so far. We have in operation. So, yeah, you hear a lot about, EV, you read a lot about it.

00:01:58:17 – 00:02:22:02
Speaker 2
a lot of schools are looking at it. but really, if you think about it, propane has been around for quite a long time and is also another very clean fuel. It’s not zero emission, but it’s very close to no emissions, product. So for us, it’s, a great offering for school districts, for those who are either not ready to go EV or maybe EV doesn’t meet all their needs in their fleet.

00:02:22:04 – 00:02:23:06
Speaker 2
Propane is a great option.

00:02:23:11 – 00:02:29:20
Speaker 1
So, Ryan, it sounds like both, even propane, are good options. Is that does that mean those are the two clear winners?

00:02:29:22 – 00:02:46:16
Speaker 3
You know, it’s it’s crazy to think that the industry school bus in general. Right. We went from a time not that long ago where it was diesel and diesel only, and now they probably have more choice than just about anybody, which is good, right? The customer wins when they have choice. And, industry friend of mine put it this way, right?

00:02:46:16 – 00:03:14:02
Speaker 3
There’s no silver bullet. You know, when we talk about EV or propane or natural gas or hydrogen, but there’s a ton of silver BS. So I think if you look at, you know, the attributes of the fuels, how they operate, what kind of conditions, where do they excel and where do they struggle? We can see more of this composite fleet of the future, where we use one fuel source for something and another for another application, and we look at where we get to our common goal using all the different tools we have at our disposal.

00:03:14:04 – 00:03:28:02
Speaker 1
So it’s the moment of, wow, there’s more than just one fuel yet the vehicle’s the same, right? It’s it carries students to and from school. It’s yellow. everything about it’s the same, but it can run on different fuels. Absolutely.

00:03:28:06 – 00:03:47:08
Speaker 2
That’s a good point. If you think about it. We built a school bus. We still built them safe, regardless of what fuel type it’s powering. It’s being powered by. So, you often want to know that, right? What’s the main difference? This is just what propels it down the road. Primarily operation of it is going to be very similar, if not exactly the same depending on the fuel type.

00:03:47:10 – 00:03:49:03
Speaker 2
Not a lot of differences.

00:03:49:05 – 00:04:03:13
Speaker 1
So we know there’s gas and diesel world. There’s 140 to 170,000 places that you can refuel that vehicle. How does that play out with the EV and the propane side?

00:04:03:15 – 00:04:33:07
Speaker 2
well, on for EV most I mean, for obviously the charging infrastructure. but because of, route needs and because those busses come back to the ordinary day, most have their own charging infrastructure on site where propane because you have more range. and you also have more options to actually fuel it publicly. Moscow districts do have their own, fueling infrastructure on site, but they can also find many places to fuel it while going on.

00:04:33:07 – 00:04:36:00
Speaker 2
You know, longer trips or activities or what have you. School district.

00:04:36:00 – 00:04:50:23
Speaker 3
So I think of the propane side to the refueling times are pretty quick, you know, similar to what you’d expect out of a gas or diesel bus. So, you know, the commitment to refuel that bus all the way isn’t quite the same as what it would be on some of the other alternative fuels.

00:04:51:01 – 00:05:03:15
Speaker 1
So you really do have, the same ease of keeping the vehicle fueled and ready to go, with EV and propane that you do with the traditional diesel, as Ryan had mentioned, and even gasoline.

00:05:03:15 – 00:05:04:10
Speaker 2
Yep.

00:05:04:12 – 00:05:12:01
Speaker 1
So, cost let’s talk let’s talk about the EV and propane symbiotic relationship as it relates to cost.

00:05:12:03 – 00:05:30:13
Speaker 2
Yeah, obviously a big difference there. and that is the one big challenge or one of the big challenges with EV, and maybe why it hasn’t grown, nearly as fast as propane is going because there is that initial cost that is quite a bit more. 2 to 3 times more than a typical, internal combustion engine bus.

00:05:30:15 – 00:06:01:15
Speaker 2
So because of that, you have to have some type of typically some type of incentives or subsidies to help offset that upfront cost. Now your your operational costs are much, much lower. Very little maintenance, energy costs are a lot less than fueling cost. But it’s still you have to kind of get over that hump of the initial, cost of just purchasing the bus, which is why things like federal grants or state level grants are generally required for school districts to actually put these in operation, where propane not not so much the case.

00:06:01:15 – 00:06:03:22
Speaker 2
You don’t really need any kind of incentives.

00:06:04:00 – 00:06:26:11
Speaker 3
A lot closer to the price of a traditional fuel bus. I mean, I would say under on average under $10,000 as the price delta between the status quo, you know, the the diesel or the gasoline bus up to a propane. And there’s also a reduced cost per mile, you know, EV is the lowest cost per mile. Typically, when you look at it, the acquisition cost is the part that offsets it.

00:06:26:13 – 00:06:36:09
Speaker 3
And on the propane side, you got this really good balance of a very low upfront acquisition price, right. And a low cost per mile that gets you, a great total cost of ownership.

00:06:36:11 – 00:06:46:12
Speaker 1
So some talk to me a little bit about, could these two actual propane and EV busses exist in the same fleet?

00:06:46:14 – 00:07:07:17
Speaker 2
Yeah, I definitely think they could. And you’re starting to see school districts, even on some of these, like EPA grants where they’re applying actually for both products for propane and for EV schools. See, really the benefit of both. Right. And some of the limitations of EV where they don’t have with propane. So, yeah, you’re going to have to, you know, figure out the infrastructure side.

00:07:07:19 – 00:07:26:09
Speaker 2
Obviously for EV, you’re going to have to have charging infrastructure. and there’s a process for that. And also on propane, they’re going to have to have their own fueling infrastructure there as well, which is a lot easier, honestly, than, the charging side for school busses. So I definitely think they could both exist in the same fleets.

00:07:26:09 – 00:07:46:12
Speaker 3
I think we’re going to see it a lot. I think if you you put that hat on for a while of the transportation director school board, you name it, right. What’s the common goal? I’m trying to get kids to and from school, but now I need to do it more sustainably, right? I’m being asked to watch our impacting the environment in our fleet.

00:07:46:14 – 00:08:07:18
Speaker 3
And both, as you said, EV and propane help achieve that goal. But they do it and excel in different areas. And so there’s certain parts of the country, right, which are colder than others. Propane excels and really loves the cold thrives in it really. EV prefers the warmer areas. EV really likes urban routes. Low speed right where we probably idle and consume more fuel than necessary.

00:08:07:22 – 00:08:26:12
Speaker 3
We might like more rural routes because of range or something like that. So when you look at all the different routes that a school district might manage, they could probably start seeing those pieces of, oh, that technology should go here and we should put this one over there. But there’s a place for both of them. And that fleet could be optimized in that way.

00:08:26:14 – 00:08:58:06
Speaker 1
So they both can play together. It sounds like they can, definitely be part of a fleet, depending upon the needs, whether it’s a long trip bus or something that’s just short in an urban route. when it relates to, I’ll say, infrastructure for going to the future, both of them have different things to consider, right? Obviously, an EV, as Albert had mentioned, it’s it’s putting in a charging station, you know, propane, it’s often working with your local propane provider to give you the equipment to be able to fuel the bus.

00:08:58:08 – 00:09:14:21
Speaker 1
If I’m a, a contractor or a district, how how do I get started on that? How do I make the decision whether I just fuel outside and, you know, a lot of districts have gotten rid of even their gas and diesel islands and they basically contract out. How do I get started in on making the decisions on infrastructure?

00:09:14:21 – 00:09:40:19
Speaker 3
Well, we’ll talking about this, you know, symbiotic relationship. There’s a there’s a cool overlap between the two specifically. So propane is commonly used in power generation applications has been for many many years. And so somebody came up with a great idea of if we have electrical infrastructure needs that are going through the roof, right. Because of all the electric vehicles out there, could we use propane as power generation for those battery chargers?

00:09:40:21 – 00:09:59:09
Speaker 3
So you think about that composite fleet of the future. And I’ve got propane busses and I’ve got EV busses. I’ve got propane already on site because I’m fueling those. So I’ve got stored energy there. And if I use a generator, not only can I make myself more resilient, I can charge my busses. If the grid goes down, I could fuel my propane busses.

00:09:59:09 – 00:10:12:13
Speaker 3
If the grid goes down and I could take the whole fleet in a more resilient step in direction, then less really cool concept between those. And we’re seeing some of that happen with some of the fleets that have both in their in their operation.

00:10:12:15 – 00:10:32:03
Speaker 2
I think we’ll see more of that too, because it really solves those problems. Like you’re saying, like resiliency and if the grid goes down or if there’s natural disasters, all those concerns, what’s good today that have their own fueling, idling and can’t get fuel out of their, you know, out of that to actually fuel their busses. But this solution, obviously, it’s, it solves all those issues.

00:10:32:03 – 00:10:36:16
Speaker 2
And you still have the great performance of two different fuel types.

00:10:36:16 – 00:10:54:09
Speaker 3
And I think to, you know, the optics of backing up your electric busses with a big diesel generator. We all know diesel is pretty clean, but there is that piece of it that’s like, well, couldn’t you just run a diesel bus in the first place? So we get propane extremely clean from a tailpipe perspective and it backs up your your fleet.

00:10:54:09 – 00:10:54:21
Speaker 3
Totally.

00:10:55:03 – 00:11:17:08
Speaker 1
So so it sounds like the two both on the vehicle side and on the infrastructure side can actually play well together. So if somebody wanted to go e all EV today. Right. And when we’re getting requests like that where I just want to go all EV bus and you were to give them guidance or perspective. How does how does propane play in that.

00:11:17:08 – 00:11:23:04
Speaker 1
Say it’s all diesel fleet today. How does how does propane play in that? I want to do all EV.

00:11:23:06 – 00:11:42:07
Speaker 2
Yeah it’s a that’s a great question. And we get those questions too, because some school districts already go all in on EV and and they’re trying to electrify their fleet. And that’s course challenges with doing that. The cost factor we talked about earlier, but there’s also some other considerations like range and, just how quickly can you make that transition.

00:11:42:07 – 00:11:57:11
Speaker 2
Right. So for me, it seems like propane is that natural bridge to get to a fully sustainable zero emission fleet. If you can’t do it all today or do it in the really the time frame you’re wanting to, I think propane is a great, great solution.

00:11:57:11 – 00:12:13:02
Speaker 3
I think so too. And I think that fleet that’s all in on EV. You know, that setting the expectations with them upfront of let’s look at all your routes and let’s make sure that that makes sense. And you’re going to have a positive experience because there could be a few out there that, you know, run those higher miles and it’s less predictable.

00:12:13:04 – 00:12:29:10
Speaker 3
And that might be where the propane fits and they just don’t see that fit because we’re still, you know, relatively in the infancy of EV adoption. And so the expectations of the fleet might be, well, this can go 2 or 300 miles, or it can have that higher range where that might have a more natural fit with propane.

00:12:29:10 – 00:12:32:09
Speaker 3
They’re just not aware of the differences of the vehicles themselves.

00:12:32:09 – 00:12:47:05
Speaker 1
So so there’s really some educating to do as it relates to those that let’s say or nearly, if not all diesel today, in trying to make that bridge to eventually what would be an EV economy if everything kept tracking the way it’s tracking today.

00:12:47:05 – 00:13:03:18
Speaker 2
Yeah, yeah, I think it’s just going and sitting down with the customer and fully assessing their fleet, their route needs, what their operation looks like today, what it’s going to look like in the future. And, coming up with a solution that may involve both, propane. Nev. Yeah. To make it work.

00:13:03:20 – 00:13:20:21
Speaker 3
And I mean, we talk about, you know, propane being a bridge fuel, right? I still not sure we know what the destination is. Right? I we could see hydrogen more. There could be a fuel source none of us even know about. Right. But it’s that common goal of we want to take a step toward cleaner, but still get the job done right.

00:13:20:21 – 00:13:31:07
Speaker 3
Because ultimately, we still have to get these kids to and from school safely and reliably. And that composite fleet can do that for just about every application that I’ve I’ve seen across the country.

00:13:31:09 – 00:13:50:21
Speaker 1
So what you’re saying is, you know, hey, we’ve been doing this diesel thing for a long time. And I know in some cases, districts and contractors looking at how am I going to make this change to these more emissions friendly, you know, EVs and how does propane playing that? You’re saying it’s a long bridge. It could be a long bridge.

00:13:50:23 – 00:13:52:10
Speaker 3
I think it could be a very long bridge.

00:13:52:11 – 00:13:54:09
Speaker 2
Yeah, yeah. And that’s okay. Right.

00:13:54:11 – 00:14:13:12
Speaker 1
Thank you again for, talking about the EV and propane symbiotic relationship. Really sounds like from an overall perspective, that the two can really work together to help a contractor or school district get to a cleaner fleet. and it sounds like it can be easy to implement and cost effective as well.

00:14:13:12 – 00:14:24:15
Speaker 2
Yeah. And I think school districts, this is all top of mind, right? They they understand they going to likely have to do something different here in the very near future. And they want to know the best, best path to do that. So yeah.

00:14:24:17 – 00:14:29:03
Speaker 1
And that’s a bird’s eye view on the symbiotic relationship between EV and propane.