Alternative Fuels

Subtle Shifts in School Transportation Industry's Fuel Mix

James Blue
Posted on May 23, 2018

At first glance, the latest school bus sales numbers by fuel type don’t look much different than they did a few years ago. But a closer inspection reveals a few changes underway in the market.

As we reported in our 2018 Fact Book, there was a total of 44,389 school buses sold in the 2017 sales year. Now, here are the percentages of those sales numbers for each available fuel option:

• Diesel: 77%.
• Gasoline: 16%.
• Propane: 6%.
• Compressed natural gas (CNG): 1%.
• Electric: less than 1%.

Diesel has long been the foremost fuel when it comes to large school buses (Types C and D). Looking just at those types — so, excluding the Type A small school buses — diesel accounted for 88% of the sales in 2017.

However, there was a noteworthy shift in 2017 as gasoline Type C school buses came into the picture. While gasoline is the longtime predominant fuel for Type As, until recently there had not been gasoline-powered large school buses offered by major OEMs in many years.

Blue Bird’s Vision Gasoline school bus became available in 2016. In April of this year, the OEM reported a milestone: the sale of its 2,500th Vision Gasoline, to Frederick County Public Schools in Virginia.

In the 2017 sales year, gasoline accounted for 5% of large school bus sales. That’s still a fairly small piece of the pie, but it’s bound to increase in the coming years. As we reported in our April/May issue, IC Bus said it’s getting a strong showing of orders for its new gasoline CE Series Type C, which was slated to go into full production in April.

Looking again at the overall school bus sales for 2017, propane was the most popular alternative fuel, taking up 6% of the total school bus market. Notably, the data we collected included propane sales from five different manufacturers of large and small school buses.

In the 2014 sales year (the last time we broke the data down by fuel type), propane accounted for 5% of the total school bus sales, so there has been slight growth in the market share for this alternative fuel over the past three years.

Meanwhile, CNG takes up a smaller slice of the pie, with about 1% of the total school bus sales in 2017. Without rounding that CNG figure up to a whole number, it comes more precisely to 0.6%, down from 0.9% of the total school bus sales in 2014.

The newer alt-fuel option for school buses is electricity, which is a pricy proposition up front but shows promise for lower operating costs. As of 2017, sales of electric models accounted for just a fraction of a percentage point of the total school bus sales, but that will likely change in the years ahead with more grant funding and more options becoming available.

Last year, the “Big 3” school bus OEMs — Blue Bird, IC Bus, and Thomas Built Buses — unveiled new electric models. Deliveries of Blue Bird’s electric buses are expected to begin in late summer or early fall of this year. Thomas Built has said that its electric bus could go into early production in 2019, and IC Bus anticipates launching its electric model in late 2019 or early 2020.

Now, Collins is coming out with a new electric Type A school bus utilizing a powertrain by Motiv, which also powers electric models from Trans Tech and Starcraft/Creative Bus Sales.

Meanwhile, Lion is developing an electric Type A bus that is expected to go to market this summer, joining the company’s existing eLion Type C. Also, GreenPower has been logging orders for its Synapse 72 electric school bus.

As for the school districts and contractors that already have electric school buses on the road, see our feature story on the topic. The results may encourage other operations to test the electric options for themselves.

Change comes slowly in the school bus industry, but there are subtle shifts in the fuel mix that may be more overt in the near future.  

Related Topics: alternative fuels, Blue Bird, diesel, electric bus, gasoline, IC Bus, Thomas Built Buses

James Blue General Manager
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