The City of Gainesville may be feeling green, but the accounting on the fleet of hybrid buses may be in the red.
The Gainesville Regional Transit System’s hybrid buses were not cheap. They cost $200,000 more than regular biodiesel buses. And now the fuel data reveals it would take about 10 years of fuel savings to pay off the hybrid premium, said Chip Skinner, marketing and communications supervisor at RTS. He also said a bus’s average lifespan is about 7 years. That means the city would have to operate the buses three years after their natural life to recoup the costs over conventional biodiesel vehicles.
Fuel efficiency between the two models is not drastically different. The regular buses run at an average of 3.48 mpg, Skinner said. According to RTS maintenance reports, the hybrids ran at an average of 3.68 in 2011 and 4.03 mpg in 2012. The reports for 2013 have not been released, but Skinner said there was about a 0.25 miles-per-gallon increase last year.
RTS has five hybrids in its bus fleet. They run on a combination of biodiesel and electricity, Skinner said, whereas the non-hybrids run purely on biodiesel.
The RTS hybrids cost $600,000 each, as opposed to $400,000 for each of the regular biodiesel buses, Skinner said.
According to Skinner, the federal government gives RTS incentives to go green. RTS receives a $1 per gallon match on taxes for switching to biodiesel fuel and fuel savings.
The University of Florida purchased the first two buses in 2012 through the Campus Development Agreement, which helps coordinate transportation between Gainesville, UF and Alachua County, said Curtis Reynolds, UF’s vice president for business affairs. RTS purchased the last three hybrids in 2013 through a federal grant for the City of Gainesville, Skinner said.
Bob Miller, associate vice president of business affairs at UF, said the buses were purchased in an effort to provide a “more sustainable transit system.”
Doug Hartley, assistant general manager at Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority in West Virginia, said he had a similar experience with the hybrid buses in his fleet. Hartley said his hybrids, which run on electric and 100 percent diesel fuel, had a 1.2 mpg increase compared to the fleet’s regular buses. The hybrids run at an average of 5.4 mpg, whereas the regular buses run at an average of 4.8 mpg. The buses were bought through a grant in 2009.
Hartley said it would take the public transportation company about 26 years to pay off the hybrids. As a result, he doesn’t plan to purchase more in the future.
“It’s probably going to take more than the lifespan of the bus,” Hartley said. “I don’t think they ever pay themselves back.”
Yet, according to UF professor Pratap Pullammanappallil, who specializes in biofuel production, said the biodiesel itself is actually quite efficient.
RTS uses a B20 biodiesel, which means it is 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent petroleum diesel (regular diesel), Skinner said.
Pullammanappallil said it would have been more efficient for RTS to switch to B100, which is 100 percent biodiesel. He said biodiesel is made from organic waste such as vegetable oil or animal fat. The biodiesel fuel emissions have less sulfur and pollutants than regular diesel. However, he said he would assume the B100, like the hybrid buses, is expensive.
Skinner said RTS doesn’t choose to use a higher-grade biodiesel fuel because it would require RTS to change the engines of their 123 bus fleet. He says once you go above B20, the fuel begins to degrade the rubber seals and gaskets in the engines.
Ron Fuller, the assistant director of UF transportation services, said the University has also been trying to go green by using gasoline-ethanol powered flex-fuel Dodge minivans that have been having engine problems.
“The bottom line is there is a cost to being green,” said Fuller. “Is this a cost we’re willing to make?”