Leader Blues

Friday, June 13, 2008

TOP STORY >>Districts look to alternative fuels

Leader staff writer

Biodiesel bus fuel is a fair-weather fix, at least in these latitudes, according to Brad Montgomery, director of transportation for the Pulaski County Special School District.

That’s because in a federally funded pilot project, 20 percent biodiesel fuel increased miles per gallon by about 8 percent over regular diesel, but in cold weather it sometimes gelled and clogged or ruined injectors and other expensive parts.

Cutting the organic portion of the fuel from 20 percent to 5 percent cut the miles per gallon savings to about 2 percent.

“The hidden benefit is that we have witnessed an increase of about eight/10ths of a mile per gallon increase in efficiency,” according to Montgomery, which can be significant when 345 buses log about 4.6 million miles a year.

While no failures were reported in the 35 buses in the pilot project, once all 345 buses used biodiesel, six buses reported failures of injector pumps and other pricey engine components, he said.

While the failure rate diminishes when the district uses 5 percent biodiesel instead of 20 percent, so did the savings from greater fuel efficiency.

Biofuel also slowed the pumps at the bus barns. Buses that generally filled in about five minutes using diesel took 35 minutes or longer with biofuel, leaving lines of angry drivers.

The federal government paid Pulaski County to run the pilot project for two school years, which included buses running to Oak Grove and Jacksonville high schools.

With dramatic increases recently in the costs both diesel and biodiesel fuels, Montgomery said the relative cost of each fuel plus the weather would determine whether or when the district uses the biofuel.

“It helps the environment, helps reduce reliance on foreign oil and helps the farmer,” he said. During one year, it kept nearly four tons of smog out of the air in central Arkansas. The biodiesel component of the fuel the district used was derived from soybeans and grains he said, although it is possible to use animal fat and rendered oil.

“All of our buses are diesel, and when it makes sense, we use the biodiesel,” he said. “We don’t have to convert anything.”
Montgomery said the district’s fuel budget is a moving target.

“Last year, we budgeted $1.2 million. This year it’s near $2 million,” he said.

While the cost of diesel at the pump for the family car is about $4.73 a gallon, the school district gets a break, which cuts its cost to about $4.14 a gallon. The district budgeted about $1.2 million for fuel this past school year and expects to spend $2 million or more next year.

If fuel costs stay high or increase, districts will consider measures such as a four-day school week, cutting back field trips and sending fewer buses on athletic trips, perhaps reducing the size of the traveling squads.

The increasing cost of diesel has had a significant impact on the Cabot School District, according to Superintendent Tony Thurman.

“We were paying $2.59 per gallon at the beginning of the year and are now paying over $4 per gallon.We spent $303,000 last year and have been budgeting $418,000 this year,” he said.

“We increased the fuel budget over 20 percent from last year but will be significantly over budget even with the increase.”

Thurman said that without a dramatic decrease in fuel costs, the district would be forced to consider options next fall.

“We must make sure that every bus route is efficient in terms of student load and mileage. The district will also review all activity trips and make sure that we are not sending any more buses on these trips than absolutely necessary. We have sports teams that may have to double-up and ride the same bus instead of taking separate buses.

“We understand the importance of allowing students learning opportunities outside the regular classroom,” Thurman said, “but we may have to limit the number of trips that are being allowed for each school.”

“This budget year, from the first tanker we bought to the last one we got in May, the cost has gone up $1.70 a gallon,” said Hal Crisco, Beebe’s assistant superintendent for maintenance and transportation.

“If I had to order more now, it would be higher yet. The only thing we can do is be conservative, but there is only so much we can do as a school district. Activities are an integral part of the school day and school functions.

“I’ll have to look at doubling the budget at a minimum and hope fuel prices go down,” said Crisco, “but I don’t see that happening.”

“We’re fixing to change superintendents, and haven’t decided anything yet,” said Bill Trickey, Lonoke School District transportation director. The only thing he was prepared to commit to before consulting with incoming Superintendent John Tackett was to eliminate bus idling, but other things will be kicked around.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 or 18 years,” Trickey said. But in the past couple of years he’s seen fuel prices go from “two-something to four-something” a gallon.

“We spent $83,000 so far this year and don’t even have in bills from May and June.”

He said the district would consider tightening up its school bus routes, but that the higher fuel costs might turn people driving to school from as far away as Furlow and nearly Jacksonville into bus riders, increasing demand for bus transportation.