ATLANTA, Ga. — The decision four years ago by the Fulton County School System to replace aging diesel-fueled buses with propane-powered vehicles proved its value during recent events.
“The current gas shortage brings to light one of the goals in [the district’s] multi-year effort to reduce our bus fleet’s dependence on traditional diesel fuel,” said chief communications officer Brian Noyes.
A May 8 cyberattack on Alpharetta-based Colonial Pipeline led to a fuel shortage across the South, primarily from a run on stations from panicked drivers.
Noyes said nearly half of the district’s 930 school buses now run on propane fuel, which limited the disruption caused by gas shortages. Careful management and pre-existing plans also helped.
“Fulton County Schools maintains our own fuel depots for buses, maintenance, warehouse and security vehicles” Noyes said. “We have had [sufficient supply] to continue operations in the short term, with minimal disruption.”
All school vehicles, such as police cars and maintenance trucks, were also directed to fuel up only as needed until the shortages ease.
But buses must run, even with more kids learning from home. Fulton County Schools operates the state’s fourth largest fleet, racking up more than a million miles each month. About 75 percent of students ride the bus to and from school each day, according to school district figures.
Noyes said the gradual plan to convert to propane will continue to lessen the system’s reliance on traditional fossil fuels.
“Through a combination of local capital funds, thanks to the one-penny sales tax, and federal and state grants, the district has currently at 443 propane-powered buses,” Noyes said. “And by April 2022, [we] will have a total of 491 which is 52 percent of the fleet.”
In 2017 Fulton County Schools secured a $1.9 million federal grant to kickstart the purchase of propane-powered buses to replace half of its diesel fleet by 2022. The district will exceed that goal, Noyes said.
Propane buses cost on average about $7,000 more than diesel buses. However, transportation officials with the district at that time said the increased cost will be more than made up through savings on fuel and maintenance.
The fuel shortage crisis this month was another disruption to the 2020-21 school year, and district officials said the impact was felt by the entire school community. A letter sent to all students and staff last week outlined the plans in the event the crisis continued.
“For now, we will continue with regular operations in place,” wrote Superintendent Mike Looney. “Should things change, we have the ability to switch to remote learning, understanding our desire is to quickly return to face-to-face instruction for those who have chosen that option.”