During a week when many of Austin’s weirdest donned shocking Halloween costumes in which to roam the streets, the school bus industry took on even scarier fare.
At the National Association for Pupil Transportation’s 31st Annual Conference and Trade Show — held Oct. 29 through Nov. 3 in the Texas capital — workshops covered a wide range of topics. But frightening fuel prices was the standout, as speakers offered tips for reducing diesel consumption, including alternative methods of powering buses.
One session conjured chilling scenarios involving safety and liability threats in special-needs transportation. And then there was the case of the “alien” wheelchairs ...
Fuel supply interruptions
The blockbuster workshop titled “Pain at the Pump” quickly filled to capacity with interested conference attendees concerned about the escalating cost of fuel.
The workshop, facilitated by James “Red” Roberts of United Energy Distributors Inc. and Donald Tudor and Marshall Casey of the South Carolina Department of Education, aimed to demystify the hierarchy of fuel supply — who gets gas first during a supply crunch and why. The facilitators also discussed how natural disasters disrupt the supply chain and what a pupil transportation operation can do to ensure that it has fuel when needed.
Some conference goers were surprised to learn of the many incidences that can occur at any given time and disrupt the normal operations of a pipeline.
Power outages, unplanned downtime at refineries and construction accidents can shut down a pipeline for several weeks at a time, Roberts said. Historically, natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes have caused considerable damage to pipelines. “Flooding has been a greater issue to refineries than the high winds of hurricanes,” he added.
Political unrest in countries such as Venezuela, which supplies the United States with 9 to 10 percent of its oil, can also contribute to a major disruption. In fact, Roberts pointed out that strained relations with the South American country can have more of an impact on the importing of oil to the United States than the interference caused by the war with Iraq. Moreover, competition from foreign demand growth, especially with a large energy consumer like China, creates a crabs-in-a-barrel effect with energy products.
“As long as we’re dependent on the Middle East, we will have that ill feeling in our stomachs that we’re not doing enough at home,” said Roberts.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shut off nearly 6 million barrels of oil per day of the Gulf Coast’s capacity, about 37 percent of the U.S. capacity. “Natural disasters exacerbated already tight markets in oil, petroleum products and natural gas,” Roberts said. Many U.S. refineries damaged by the storms were not expected to return to normal operations until early next year.
Who’s on first?
The most arresting part of the session set off low grumbles from attendees. It pertained to the allocation of oil domestically during crises such as the recent natural disasters and the war in Iraq.
According to Roberts, major oil companies take counts daily during situations like those named above and determine who should get fuel first. Allocations are based on the company’s own assessments and situations, and of course they impact customers.
Branded customers and locations get gas first, said Roberts, while unbranded customers such as industrial and commercial businesses are cut off. Contracted customers such as major airlines receive second priority.
Next in line are emergency responders and essential or governmental services. Finally, after the big guys have quenched their mighty thirsts, transportation operations can get their share.
What you can do
After stunning attendees with the facts on fuel matters, Roberts offered a few suggestions on what can be done to assure that an operation has fuel during an unforeseen or unseasonable crunch. One suggestion was to make sure that suppliers have multiple options for supplying an operation with fuel.
Fixed-price contracts are another option, Roberts suggested, but with a caveat.
“Consider fixed-price contracts only when you can do it comfortably,” he said. “Never lock in a price under a panic.”
Roberts suggested also that transportation coordinators get to know their suppliers and consider alternative fuels such as biodiesel and E85. Bulk storage was recommended as well.
Roberts ended the session with a list of options to help minimize the impact of a choked fuel-supply situation. Operations should:
Plan for a higher price environment.
Evaluate fixed-price and hedging opportunities.
Lobby for elimination of “boutique fuels.”
Buy/run more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Consolidate pick-up points.
Seek exemptions from state and federal fuel taxes (15 to 18 percent of the cost of fuel).
Hope for lower crude prices and warmer weather.
Among the discussions of fuel matters was a workshop on the potential for hybrid-electric school buses. Ewan Pritchard of the nonprofit group Advanced Energy explained the efforts that are underway to make this type of vehicle a reality.
Advanced Energy has been working with representatives of the pupil transportation industry on a four-phase project spanning a 10-year period (2003 to 2013). The goal of the Hybrid Electric School Bus project is to encourage the use of plug-in hybrid electric technology in school buses.
Hybrid-electric technology in school buses would use an electric motor and an onboard battery in conjunction with the diesel engine, and a plug-in system would enable recharging of batteries through an electrical grid.
The first phase of the project has consisted of a study to determine the feasibility — technically and financially — of hybrid-electric school buses.
The next phase focuses on testing pre-production vehicles. The group hopes to work with one of the major school bus manufacturers to design the vehicle. A buyers consortium, which includes pupil transportation operations from across the country, plans to purchase about 20 of the hybrid-electric school buses to put in use and test.
Pritchard said the cost is expected to be around $200,000 per bus for the pilot project. However, if the buses were to become widely available on the market, the estimated cost would be about $80,000.
While initial costs for hybrid-electric school buses would be higher, Pritchard said that the vehicles would use less fuel and reduce engine maintenance. One of the biggest benefits of using hybrid-electric technology would be the significant reduction in emissions.
Attendees in the workshop showed a great deal of interest in the topic. One transportation official, expressing the detriment that high fuel costs have caused his district, said of the hybrid-electric project, “We’re ready to get this rolling. Our superintendents are breathing down our necks.”
Ventures in biodiesel
Also factoring into the fuel coverage was biodiesel. Mike Clark, director of transportation at Monroe County Community School Corp. in Bloomington, Ind., talked about his operation’s implementation of biodiesel.
In the fall of 2003, the district began a B20 (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent petroleum diesel) pilot program, which Clark said he “reluctantly agreed to.” Worried about the fuel’s effect on his buses’ operation, especially in cold weather, Clark chose older buses for the program.
Despite his concerns, Clark said the buses running on biodiesel had no trouble during the winter — even in below-zero temperatures. In the summer of 2004, Clark added about 30 more buses to the project.
The results were so positive — less diesel use, reduced emissions, etc. — that by that fall, all 110 district-owned school buses had been switched over to B20 use.