Brunswick School Department’s two new propane powered buses, paid for largely through a settlement with Volkswagen. Courtesy of Brunswick School Department

BRUNSWICK — Brunswick School Department’s fleet of yellow school buses just got a little bit greener. 

On Friday, the department rolled out two new Blue Bird Vision propane autogas buses that officials hope will help pave the way for a more sustainable future. 

The buses were purchased from the Volkswagen Clean Air Act Settlement, in which the auto company agreed to help replace diesel buses. The carmaker paid for $78,120, or 80% of the $105,000 price tag of each bus, Superintendent Philip Potenziano said, totaling $156,240. Brunswick School Department funded the remaining $53,760. A typical diesel bus costs between $96,000 and $100,000, he said.  

Volkswagen agreed to pay $14.7 billion nationally toward pollution mitigation to settle an emissions-cheating scandal dating back to 2015. Maine received $21 million in all from the settlement.

A “powered by propane” emblam on each of the new Brunswick School Department buses. Courtesy of the Brunswick School Department

Michelle Caron, director of transportation, the buses arrived Oct. 21, bringing the department’s fleet up to 28. 

According to a press release from the school department, propane autogas, a non-contaminant of air, land, and water resources, will “cut current tailpipe emissions by 66% and produce near-zero nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions at 0.02 NOx, clearing up the air for students with respiratory illnesses like asthma.”

School buses may not be the primary focus for combating climate change, but Maine’s transportation sector is responsible for more than 50% of greenhouse gas pollution in the state, compared to roughly 29% nationally, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. 

Last year, The Portland Press Herald reported that Maine’s transportation pollution is one of the highest proportions of any U.S. state. While Maine’s residential, commercial energy and industrial sectors have reduced emissions over the years, transportation pollution remains high with just over 8 million tons of CO2 a year, according to the U.S. Energy Administration. 

Recent state estimates say school buses are the largest means of public transportation in Maine, logging 30 million miles and burning 5 million gallons of diesel fuels each year. 

Mount Desert Island High School won $280,000 from the settlement to offset most of the cost of an electric bus, but Caron said that for Brunswick, propane was the right move. 

Electric buses start at about $340,000, “a pretty hard price to pay” for a single bus, Caron said. Plus, a town needs the right infrastructure to support them and they can be expensive to repair. 

There are hopes of bringing the costs down, she said, and if they could get one without increasing taxes it would be a different story, but it’s not in the immediate future. 

“We’ll have to see for now how that plays out,” she said. 

The school department would like to eventually purchase more propane buses, Caron said. 

These vehicles will save the department and taxpayers money over time. The buses use seven quarts of oil, just a quarter of what a diesel bus uses, and will therefore require fewer oil changes. They also require fewer fuel filters and no diesel particulate filter cleaning or replacement (which can be $2,000 or more), less idle time and less fuel for cold weather starts. 

According to the Propane Education & Research Council, if Maine replaced all it’s 2007-2014 diesel buses with 2019 propane models it could reduce emissions by 53,000 pounds.

Sanford, Madison and Farmington school districts have also purchased propane-powered buses.

Comments are not available on this story.