Monday, April 9, 2012

Darlington finds cheaper bus fuel solution

Again, a good idea comes from the Pee Dee region.

While lawmakers look for ways to privatize the state's school bus system and turn another part of public education into a profit-making enterprise, the leaders in Darlington County's school system are innovating and solving problems within the public school system.

Which seems to prove the old notion once again: Empower professionals to solve problems, and they'll do it.

From the Florence Morning News online:

The Darlington County School District is going into the oil business.

Not crude oil, cooking oil.

District officials announced a plan Monday to convert used cooking oil gleaned from the district’s 19 cafeterias into “biodiesel” fuel that will be used to power DCSD activity buses. Those are buses that ferry students to athletic events and other extracurricular events, not the familiar yellow buses used for daily transportation.

The plan helps the district both go green and save some green. Recycling the old oil is good for the environment and because the district can make the fuel for about 75 cents a gallon, it’ll save almost a dollar per gallon in fuel costs. The district would save more, of course, if it could burn pure biodiesel, but that’s not recommended by engine manufacturers due to biodiesel’s increased viscosity. Biodiesel fuel needs to be burned in an 80-20 mix (80 percent regular diesel).

Still, district officials said they’ll save up to $17,000 per year, with regular diesel at its current price of around $4 per gallon.

Dr. Rainey Knight, Darlington School District Superintendent of Education, said she is excited about the innovative qualities of the program.

“I think it’s really neat,” said Knight. “We know it’s saving us money and we’re going green with it and we want to take it to the next level. Buses are expensive so if we can help reduce those costs and reduce the cost to our schools that’s our ultimate goal.”

The district said that it’s the only school district in the state that’s using biodiesel in its school buses.

And why is that? Why can't other school districts accomplish the same thing, and realize the same level of savings?

Here's a suggestion for the folks in Darlington: Ask the professionals who made this innovation a reality to draft a summary of their process, and post it on the Darlington public school district's website. Email it to other transportation officials across the state. Trumpet this document to everyone who will read it.

Not only will Darlington get tremendous credit for innovation, but the state's public school districts will benefit from the increased savings.

The whole project was made possible by a one-time grant from the United States Department of Energy in the amount of $40,000. The district will use the funds to pay for setting up its own “refinery.” No bus engine modifications are necessary.

See what happens when we allow federal funds to get into our state?

Are more of these grants available?

If not, this is a perfect opportunity for Darlington's legislative delegation to propose a pilot program to legislative allies, and get several of these refineries set up throughout the region and across the state. What a boon to local economic development!

The National Biodiesel Board defines biodiesel as a clean burning alternative fuel produced from domestic, renewable resources such as plant oils, animal fats and used cooking oil. Biodiesel contains no petroleum, but it can be blended at any level with petroleum diesel to create a biodiesel blend. It’s in use by a number of organizations and businesses around the country. The key component for most is access to a ready supply of used cooking oil.

Darlington County School District Transportation Director Eddi McKenzie came up with the idea for starting the program in the DCSD. McKenzie has been using biodiesel in his personal vehicle for three years.

God bless this man, and someone give him an award today.

“When I saw how well the biodiesel worked in my own personal vehicle and how much money we saved as a family, I thought it would be worth exploring for the school buses as well,” he said.

McKenzie said that some people have expressed concern about the chemicals involved in making the biodiesel but he said there’s nothing to be worried about.

“When we make it we feed the chemicals, such as lye, into the processor individually and the machine mixes them together,” McKenzie said. “By themselves they are not dangerous. It’s a pretty safe and easy process.”

The oil processor is about the size of an industrial-sized ice machine. McKenzie and company used part of the grant to install some solar panels that will help power the machine – yet another tip of the green hat.

Darlington has a budget of some $60,000 per year for activity bus fuel, so the new fuel will save nearly a third of that.

“You figure $17,000 saved each year over a five year period will add up,” said McKenzie.

That's money that can be converted to salaries to hire more educators in Darlington.

The district could save more if it burned biodiesel in its regular school buses (assuming it could produce enough fuel to do that). But it’s prohibited from doing so because the state owns those buses.

Legislation is currently before the House and Senate that would change that, but for the time being those buses are off limits.

Why, South Carolina?

Why does it take so long to move a single step in the right direction, but we're ever ready to race backwards in fifth gear?

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