Camryn Engle, autogas coordinator for Blue Star Gas, explains Thursday how added components vehicles converted to propane can by accessed and analyzed locally or remotely by technicians. Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle & Charter is in the process of converting its entire fleet to propane. Photo by Daniel Warn/Whidbey News-Times

Going green: Good for the environment, good for business

If you thought big, hulking vehicles couldn’t go green, think again.

Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle &Charter, which transports islanders to and from SeaTac Airport, has begun converting its entire fleet to propane, the latest example of a growing island trend toward greener, leaner transportation.

“We are pulling the trigger, and we are going to be a little bit greener on the island than what we have been,” said James Gordon, general manager of Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle &Charter.

“We’ve always had a philosophy around here about going green.”

THE WHIDBEY-BASED shuttle service recently converted its first few engines to propane as a test of the fuel’s functionality, Gordon said.

Upon evaluation, his shuttle drivers gave the altered vehicles an A-plus on all counts, signaling a new trajectory for business.

“In the last few weeks, we have converted three of our vehicles over to propane, and we are in the process of converting to where half of our fleet will be propane by the end of the year,” Gordon said, adding that the entire fleet should be green in the coming year or so.

Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle &Charter’s fleet consists of 15 vehicles, with a 16th coming soon.

BECAUSE EACH vehicle in the fleet originally ran on gasoline, the conversion is simply a matter of retooling engines to run on propane fuel lines, which Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle commissioned a company called Blue Star Gas to complete.

Camryn Engle, autogas coordinator for Blue Star Gas, said the conversion is simple, only requiring an added system to an already functional engine.

Organizations running on diesel have to become a bit creative, but Mike Nortier, the executive director for Island Transit, said his organization is up to the challenge.

While Island Transit is currently looking into funding options for propane-powered para-transit vehicles, its most viable option for environmental sustainability lies in alternative diesel options like bio-diesel or renewable diesel, Nortier said.

“With renewable diesel, you aren’t pumping petroleum from the ground, you’re finding and repurposing an alternative source,” he said.

WHIDBEY-SEATAC Shuttle’s and Island Transit’s transitions toward greener fuel lines follows a statewide trend, including even Whidbey Island school districts.

Glen Gordon, transportation director for the state of Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said his department encourages the use of alternative fuels.

“Propane is another option for school districts,” Gordon said. “We like it when a district chooses alternative fuel options — it works out for the districts who do and is a lot cleaner for the community.”

FRANCIS BAGARELLA was the first transportation director of any Washington state school district to introduce alternative fuels, namely propane, to his fleet of school buses.

Now, Oak Harbor Public Schools has 11 propane buses in its fleet, and Bagarella said he plans to purchase three more next year.

“Here in Washington state, Oak Harbor (school district) has been recognized as the leader in introducing propane buses to the bus fleet, so I get a lot of calls from people from Eastern Washington and down south,” Bagarella said, noting that they all wanted to know how the propane-fueled buses were running.

Some people questioned the initial decision to bring propane-fueled school busses to the state, due to decades-old misconceptions about the amount of horsepower that can be expected from the vehicles, he said.

THESE DAYS, however, propane-fueled buses are just as viable as their predecessors and much better for the environment, Bagarella said.

As far as fossil fuels are concerned, state lawmakers have imposed strict regulations that ensure the use of clean-burning diesel, but Bagarella said propane is king by comparison.

“Our goal was to go green ahead of time, so I got my first propane bus,” Bagarella said. “I think it’s the future … In my humble opinion, I think it’s the best way to go.”

The school district’s long-term-goal is to turn over all its buses from diesel to propane, except for the trip buses, which have more storage space for sports equipment and the like.

Propane-fueled buses have a longer life expectancy, are the safest thing on the road, save money in manpower due to lower maintenance, have a minuscule impact on the environment and are much quieter than their diesel counterparts, says Bagarella.

“WE ONLY see ourselves going greener, and I think the community will be better for it,” Bagarella said.

“They’re much quieter; when you’re stepping on that accelerator you don’t get that big loud diesel noise going through the neighborhood.

“Now you won’t be able to hear the bus go by, unless the brakes squeak.”

Families may not hear the buses, but they will certainly feel the positive impact of the district’s transition to propane, Bagarella said.

“Our whole intent is always to be good stewards of the taxpayer money — the more tax dollars I save, the less I have to take out of the general fund,” he said. “That money can go to classrooms.”

In part because of government and car-dealership incentives, Bagarella said, Oak Harbor Public Schools transportation department is reaping a financial harvest from its green fleet.

“Last year, we were able to save $35,000 by using propane,” he said.

THE COUPEVILLE and South Whidbey school districts are also making choices to go toward cleaner-energy buses.

Coupeville School District has propane-fueled buses in its fleet, and South Whidbey School District has a hybrid-electric bus.

“It uses regenerative braking that saves a lot on energy when stopping and going, as school buses tend to do,” said Brian Miller, South Whidbey School District facilities director.

Furthermore, Gordon said Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle is proud to be on the forefront of the greener-fuel movement on Whidbey, along with the school districts and Island Transit, but he hopes that clean fuel doesn’t stop with organized transportation.

As with the gasoline-powered shuttles, any consumer can convert his or her own engine to propane with a company like Blue Star Gas, Gordon said.

“The only problem is that there are no public quick-fuel propane stations in the island,” Gordon said. “As it stands, his shuttles refuel down near SeaTac on each of their 11 round-trips a day.

“My hope is that we can get a local fueling station on the island and people can start converting their cars to propane,” Gordon said.

Camryn Engle, autogas coordinator for Blue Star Gas, connects a laptop to one of Whidbey-SeaTac Shuttle & Charter’s vehicles that it recently converted to propane. The laptop connects to added components in the shuttle’s engine to gauge the vehicle’s functionality. Photo by Daniel Warn/Whidbey News-Times

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