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School buses look at fuel savings in wake of gas prices

Idle reduction technology, adopted 'green' buses performing a little below expectations

April 27, 2011

Oconomowoc Area Schools — As fuel prices continue to climb, efforts to curtail consumption are ongoing at Oconomowoc Transport Company (OTC).

The bus company has advanced "greener" options in its determination to reduce emissions and fuel costs.

Last year the company purchased 11 hybrid school buses with a $1.84 million grant from the Governor's Office of Energy Independence ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

OTC's buses traverse the school district which is 135 square miles, or six times the size of New York City, delivering approximately 3,500 to 4,000 students to and from school each day.

In addition to the green fleet, the company utilized funds available through the state Department of Natural Resources for idle reduction technology.

"We put auxiliary heaters on the bus, eliminating the need to idle buses to warm them up and also during the times they are parked at school or out at field trips, which helps improve air quality," OTC Chief Executive Officer Sandy Syburg said.

In a large commercial vehicle like a school bus, the diesel engine uses a half gallon of fuel per hour to idle.

"These heaters saved us about a half hour to an hour a day per bus," he explained.

"It saved, during winter months, as much as 25-30 gallons of fuel per day. That doesn't happen year round, just in the winter months," he added.

Syburg said the technology is in 75 percent of the fleet.

The performance of the hybrids, which were projected to get approximately 12 miles per gallon, is still being evaluated.

"We're still assessing and improving things. The hybrids are performing a little below the expectations that the manufacturer gave us, but the manufacturer's working with us," to improve that, Syburg said.

"The savings are very route specific. For fuel savings, it's the lowest average speed and the highest number of stops per mile," that generates the greatest fuel savings, he explained.

"We have 11 of the hybrids on routes that meet that criteria and match best for the highest savings," Syburg added.

The hybrids were expected to increase fuel mileage by 70 percent and reduce emissions by the same amount.

Standard school buses get approximately seven to eight miles per gallon; initial projections were that the hybrids would get 12.

The idle reduction technology and the hybrid buses soften the blow of escalating fuel costs related to driving 3,600 miles a day.

Those savings, in turn, reduces the burden on the school district budget, which pays for the fuel.

"We agree with OTC's calculations. Fuel savings are approximately 65 percent of their expected target level in this first year of service. These are hybrid buses, so when the battery systems did not operate properly, the buses ran on conventional diesel power, which of course reduces the fuel savings.

"These hybrid buses are expected to be in service for ten years, so time will tell whether they can achieve the fuel savings they were designed for once the technical issues have been resolved," said Mike Barry, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services for the Oconomowoc Area School District.

"Remember that the hybrid buses came at no extra cost to the school district. They were funded by a grant won by OTC. So, from that perspective, any fuel savings is a bonus for the school district," he added.

Syburg noted further positive environmental factors related to school buses are that riding a school bus eliminated the need for 35 cars on the road, on average, which reduces emissions, congestions and fuel usage.

"One of the best ways to save on fuel is to have children ride the bus," he said.

Syburg said with the utilization of computer routing software, they are always searching for ways to optimize courses.

"If there is an opportunity due to a child moving or road construction, we'll modify routes to reduce the miles traveled," after providing notification to families, he added.

"We re-evaluate every season to make sure it's done in the most efficient manner," Syburg said.

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