Some time back, Oneida Special School District Director of Schools Dr. Jeanny Phillips approached Scott County Commission with a plea for county financial aid to help the school system replace aging buses in its fleet.
Not surprisingly, the request was greeted with grimaces. New buses easily cost more than $50,000 each, with the exact price tag depending on the specifications and size. But since state government mandates that buses be retired from service after a certain amount of use, there is really no option but for local governments to bite the bullet and appropriate money to replace them.
Except this time, there was an option.
Soon after taking office in September 2018, Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals learned of an ongoing litigation discussion involving Volkswagen, which would ultimately result in the auto-maker agreeing to appropriate significant money for school buses that use alternative fuel sources.
The litigation dated back to 2016, when Volkswagen admitted in federal court that it had equipped 590,000 diesel vehicles with “defeat devices” to cheat on federal emissions tests. As part of a major, multi-billion-dollar settlement, VW appropriated $2.9 billion for a mitigation trust fund that compensates states for excess nitrogen oxide pollution.
Some of that money is being used by states for grants that allow local governments and school systems to purchase buses that are fueled by something other than diesel, with a 25% local match.
“My first thought was that this would be perfect for Larry West’s deal with his compressed natural gas,” Tibbals said of the Scott Appalachian Industries executive director, who implemented Scott County’s first compressed natural gas fueling station to refuel vehicles that run on CNG.
After the initial grant process, the state awarded the Scott County School System two buses and the Oneida Special School District three buses, all of which would be fueled by CNG.
But then things hit a snag. It was going to cost SAI up to $1 million to implement the necessary changes to fuel the buses, West estimated. It looked like the project would fall apart. In fact, the county school system backed away from the table completely.
But Tibbals and Oneida Special School District Director Dr. Jeanny Phillips went back to the grant-writers at East Tennessee Development District to discuss a change in scope. The grant-writers thought it would be possible, and were able to get the grant changedfrom liquified natural gas buses to propane buses.
So, last fall, OSSD placed three brand-new buses into its fleet, all of them fueled 100% by propane rather than diesel. Citizens Gas Utility District built a propane storage facility at the Jaycee ballpark adjacent to the Oneida High School campus.
“The school system loves it, the bus drivers love it, (OSSD Director of Transportation) Joe Blevins loves it,” Tibbals said. “They don’t smell, they’re low maintenance. Everybody’s happy. It was a great deal for us.”