At a time when record fuel prices threaten to siphon money from school budgets, school bus manufacturer IC Corp. has partnered with 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 was scheduled to be delivered to a school bus customer this spring, though IC executives had not disclosed the name of the client as of press time. 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 new hybrid school bus features Enova’s post-transmission, 80-kilowatt hybrid drive system. According to IC Corp., the 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 said IC and Enova have determined that the hybrid bus will save up to 40 percent of the cost of diesel fuel over the 12-year life cycle of the vehicle.

“That’s a huge operational savings, especially as fuel gets over $3 a gallon,” Hillman said. The tradeoff: The hybrid bus’s up-front cost is about two-and-a-half times that of the average standard diesel school bus, at $200,000. But Hillman said that price tag, once offered over to market forces, is likely to come down.

“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.”

The Floyd County School District in Georgia covers approximately 520 square miles, has about 10,000 students, uses 134 buses, and consumes about 1,400 gallons of fuel each day transporting students to and from school, according to Terry Simpson, transportation director for the district.

Using a conservative per-gallon estimate of $2.50 for fuel–a figure certain to increase over time–the district spends about $4,700 per bus, per year on diesel fuel. If IC Corp.’s estimate of 40-percent savings is correct, the district would save roughly $22,500 in fuel costs over the 12-year life cycle of its buses by switching to a hybrid. As it stands now, this figure isn’t enough to recover the additional cost of the hybrid vehicle.

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 interest in hybrid technology for school buses.

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

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

One of these is led by Advanced Energy, a North Carolina nonprofit organization. Advanced Energy 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 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 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.