At a time when record fuel prices threaten to siphon money from school budgets, school bus manufacturer IC Corp. has partnered with the Enova Systems, a developer of electric, hybrid, and fuel-cell digital power management systems, to build what the companies are calling the nation’s first hybrid diesel-electric school bus.

A prototype of the hybrid vehicle is scheduled to be delivered to a school bus customer this spring, though IC executives have not disclosed the name of the client. Widespread production on the model is expected in 2008. That’s too late to help school systems weather the current high cost of fuel–but it could give schools leaders some hope for the future.

“Together, IC Corporation and Enova are delivering an integrated solution that allows the customer to attain an approximate 40 percent increase in fuel economy and also greatly reduce emissions,” said Mike Staran, Enova’s vice president of marketing.

The project reportedly is being evaluated at IC Corp.’s research and technology facility in Fort Wayne, Ind. The school bus features Enova’s post-transmission 80 kilowatt (kW) hybrid drive system. According to IC Corp., that system is based on a parallel architecture that allows it to use both diesel and electric power in a highly efficient manner. It recovers kinetic energy during braking, charging the batteries while the bus is slowing down. This provides additional power for acceleration, making the technology ideal for school buses because of their frequent starting and stopping, company officials say.

“There is a lot of regenerative braking done by the school bus, because of the frequent starts and stops the school bus makes when picking up and dropping off students,” said David Hillman, director of marketing for IC Corp. “That’s one of the fundamental reasons why a school bus is a natural for hybrid technology.”

Hillman said his organization, which only has one test unit currently in development for the school bus market, has been developing hybrid technologies in other areas, such as utility trucks, and he added that IC has “quite a bit” of experience in that area.

Hillman was short on further details, stating that a press release identifying the client and providing an update on the status of the project to date is forthcoming. But he said IC and Enova have determined that the hybrid will save up to 40 percent of the costs of diesel fuel over the 12-year life cycle of the bus.

“That’s a huge operational savings, especially as fuel gets over $3 a gallon,” Hillman said.

The tradeoff is that the current up-front cost is approximately two-and-a-half times that of the average $80,000 price tag on regular, full-size diesel school buses, coming in at $200,000 a piece. But Hillman said that price, once offered over to market forces, would not last.

“One thing almost all school districts have in common is that they have tight, fixed budgets, and the fact is, this technology is not free,” Hillman said. “It’s difficult to seed this kind of technology in the marketplace. But this seems to be an easy tradeoff–save on fuel money, and there are more dollars to spend on transportation infrastructure.”

Hillman noted that market forces would bring the cost of the technology down as demand for it increased, and he said IC Corp. itself is reacting to market demand in developing the bus. He called for further government assistance to help promote the introduction and groundswell of interest in hybrid technology for school buses.

Hillman said legislation toward this end is pending in Congress this year, including one bill sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., that proposes a $50,000 tax credit for every hybrid school bus being built.

“There are also consortia that are working to create demand by bringing more hybrid buses to schools,” he said.

One of these consortia is led by Advanced Energy, a North Carolina nonprofit organization that focuses on industrial process technologies, motors and drive testing, and applied building science. The organization is sponsoring a project that aims to commercialize the use of hybrid school buses by putting together a buyers’ consortium to fund the production of a hybrid-electric school bus pilot fleet.

“Hybrid electric buses ultimately can help the [United States] meet increasingly strict air emissions standards of the future, provide a healthier environment for our citizens, and reduce our dependency on foreign oil,” said Advanced Energy vice president John Morrison. “Adapting hybrid technology to school buses, however, requires market intervention, which is what this project aims to do.”

Buyers and sponsors who already have committed funding to the project include, among others, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the state of New York, the Florida Department of Education, the New York Power Authority, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Sharon Gladwell, a representative for Advanced Energy, said 78 percent of all miles driven by buses in the state of North Carolina are driven by school buses.

“That’s a lot of tailpipe emissions. We can reduce that,” Gladwell said. “This multi-state initiative is so imperative to reducing air pollution and saving fuel costs. [North Carolina school officials] have been telling parents to send their children to school with layers on in winter months, because they don’t have the money to turn the heat up on the bus.”

The hybrid program manager, Ewan Pritchard, said his organization has about 16 buses funded at this time. He said a request for proposals to build the bus fleet has been delayed owing to legal difficulties, but it is expected to be issued through the Florida Department of Education in the coming weeks.

Links:

IC Corp.
http://www.ic-corp.com

Enova Systems Inc.
http://www.enovasystems.com

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
http://schumer.senate.gov

Advanced Energy
http://www.advancedenergy.org