CASPER - Setting an example for students is something Superintendent Jay Harnack believes is part of the mission.
Air quality in and around Pinedale has been a thorny problem for regulators and natural gas producers; reducing transportation costs to the state is an issue for every district.
Why not look for solutions to both dilemmas that exist in your own community?
Why not, indeed. The nascent idea to convert the district's fleet of aging diesel buses to Compressed Natural Gas () sprang from the Sublette school board's desire make a permanent positive difference.
At the time, Sublette #1 was an excess recapture district, and Harnack was a new Superintendent. "The Board came to me and said 'We have a certain number of dollars that have to be expended. We want to find a way to utilize this money that will have a lasting benefit to our students, and district, and to our community," Harnack said.
Harnack was very aware of Pinedale's status in air quality non-attainment. A non-attainment designation means that air pollution levels persistently exceed national ambient air standards.
Harnack was also aware of the push by large districts in neighboring Utah to use cleaner burning, abundant CNG powered vehicles to assist in the overall effort to improve air quality along the Wasatch front.
Harnack and Sublette #1 Business Manager Vern McAdams crafted a plan to begin a conversion of their own.
"We did get some raised eyebrows at first," he recalled. "The state pays for our buses. We knew we could reduce costs for the state and our district by running CNG buses. Engines in CNG buses last substantially longer, so there is obviously a substantial cost savings over time."
Right now, the CNG cost is about $1.50 per gallon, which yields immediate savings at the pump.
"As one of the bigger users of diesel, we knew that would help reduce contaminants in the air in Sublette County," he recalled. "And we wanted to be part of starting something that we knew needed to happen in terms of CNG infrastructure in Wyoming."
Return on Investment
The second part of the plan, and as it turned out, and the most cost effective long term, involved constructing a CNG fueling station. Once the buses were purchased, the station would also benefit CNG vehicle owners in the community.
There had been in talks with the county for some time about plans for a fueling station, but it didn't appear to be in the foreseeable future.
Sublette #1 is in year two of running school buses with compressed natural gas or CNG. Currently, the district has four buses that run on CNG.
The addition of a public station was a minor cost to the overall project - only about 15%.
Harnack spent the next few months consulting local natural gas producers Encana USA, Inc. and QEP Resources for design and engineering support.
Harnack knew there are a substantial number of fleet trucks in Sublette County that run on for energy production, so expanding the infrastructure for natural gas vehicles in the region generated lots of interest as the plans firmed up.
"They told me if there's a place for us to fuel up, we'll begin converting to CNG. We think that will also have a big impact on the air quality," said Harnack.
A public/private partnership was formed and work quickly progressed with engineering and design support, aided in large in part by QEP.
QEP CEO, Chuck Stanley said the company is fully supportive. "QEP was glad to assist in the construction of a Compressed Natural Gas () station in Pinedale. It's great to see the school district using clean, affordable natural gas, a resource that is so abundant in their backyard, to save taxpayers money on fuel while supporting the local economy. We have followed their lead and expanded our fleet of CNG vehicles in the area."
Harnack said the public/private ownership structure provides some added long-term benefits. "We are not in the public dispensing business," he said. "Pinedale Natural Gas (PNG) is the local natural gas provider and it leases it from us, and returns a portion of the profits back to the district."
A Better Fleet
Harnack said WDE Education Consultant for Pupil Transportation, David Koskelowski, has been especially helpful throughout the process, providing advice and support for the project as the district acquired the first two vehicles in 2012-2013. "WDE has been just great to work with. Dave was very supportive even though it was a little out of the box. We were aware of the high degree of success in Utah and that helped," said Harnack.
There are two buses now, with two more coming this year. Sublette #1 plans to replace one diesel bus every year, with a timeline of 3-5 years to replace the whole fleet.
"We will keep some activity buses for long distance trips," Harnack noted. "We hope the infrastructure will grow so that all our buses can be converted."