Rock Hill schools plug into fuel efficiency

Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody plugs in a hybrid diesel-electric school bus Thursday in Rock Hill.
Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody plugs in a hybrid diesel-electric school bus Thursday in Rock Hill.

It looks every bit as yellow as the rest of the Rock Hill school district's fleet of buses, but one new bus is significantly greener.

The district unveiled its new plug-in hybrid diesel-electric school bus Thursday, one of only two such buses in the state. The second hybrid was given to Richland School District 2 in Columbia.

"With escalating fuel costs, hybrid buses will impact school budgets in a positive way," Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody said at a news conference. "They will reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and improve the quality of air we breathe each day."

The bus came from the Plug-In Hybrid Electric School Bus Project -- a consortium of school districts, state energy agencies and student transportation providers led by Raleigh, N.C.-based Advanced Energy. Nineteen buses are being distributed nationally as part of the project.

George Hampton, district director of transportation, said the bus should hit the road next week. It will alternate running two routes to allow for comparison.

The hybrid is expected to have about double the fuel efficiency of a regular school bus. That's about 12 miles per gallon. It also will have much lower emissions.

For the first 30 miles, the hybrid will run mostly on the electric battery, said Ewan Pritchard, hybrid program manager with Advanced Energy. After that, the diesel will kick in more.

Hybrid bus drivers will receive some extra training to get familiar with the bus' unique fixtures. The only difference riders should notice is that the plug-in hybrid is much quieter than a typical school bus.

"It's a little different as you take off," said Joe Gilfillan, manager of the shop that handles bus maintenance for several York County school districts. "It almost feels like a golf cart."

The bus cost about $222,000. The state usually spends about $68,000 on a new bus. The difference this time was paid for with various grants.

Pritchard said he hopes the cost of hybrid buses will come down to about $108,000 within the next few years, making them more affordable.

Donald Tudor, transportation director with the state Department of Education, said that in order for South Carolina to purchase the hybrids en masse, they must save enough in fuel costs to make up for the extra cash it takes to buy them.

Pritchard said he thinks the vehicles will become affordable when about 1,000 are ordered in a year.

"The first one of anything costs about a bazillion dollars," he said.

Plans are in the works to buy and distribute about 300 more plug-in hybrids next year.

Rock Hill was selected to receive the bus in part because of its proximity to Charlotte. The eight-county Charlotte region, including eastern York County, was classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a nonattainment area for ground-level ozone, or smog. The designation means that pollution levels are likely to exceed federal and state limits on certain days and especially in the spring and summer.

"This bus has almost no emissions," Tudor said. "Anything we can do in the Rock Hill-south Charlotte metro area is something that (the Department of Health and Environmental Control) is looking for."