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Cook-Illinois’ Sustainable Fuel Evolution

As one school bus company leads the charge toward more sustainable transportation, it shares lessons learned for businesses that want to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their own operations.

The journey to greener fuels for transportation fleets is often one filled with experimentation and advances in science and technology. Just ask Cook-Illinois Corporation.

The largest family-owned-and-operated school bus contractor in the United States, Cook-Illinois has more than 2,200 buses in the Chicago area and also operates passenger shuttles at Midway International Airport. The company started testing alternatives to diesel fuel in the 1970s. It was looking for cleaner fuels to protect children who have breathing issues such as asthma or get headaches and nausea from diesel fumes.

First came compressed natural gas (CNG). The advantages of natural gas as a transportation fuel included its domestic availability, widespread distribution infrastructure and reduced greenhouse gas emissions over conventional gasoline and diesel fuels. But natural gas is a non-renewable source of energy.

Propane showed up in the transportation industry in the 1980s. A natural byproduct of natural gas refining, propane emits less carbon dioxide than diesel; but slightly more than natural gas in relation to the energy they produce when burned, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Still, buses burning propane are more expensive than buses with clean diesel technology.

Shift to biodiesel

In 2005, Cook-Illinois began using a fuel that was a blend of diesel and soy biodiesel. The company was the first school bus operator in the Chicago area to implement biodiesel, according to an announcement by the Illinois governor’s office at the time.

“One benefit is, you can fuel a bus I bought two, seven or 10 years ago,” said John Benish Jr., president of Cook-Illinois. “There’s no need to retrofit the bus. It’s reliable. It’s better for the bus. And it cuts down on emissions.”

Another important consideration is longevity. In June 2000, biodiesel became the first and only alternative fuel to have successfully completed the Tier I and Tier II Health Effects testing requirements of the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. The biodiesel industry invested more than $2 million and four years into the health-effects testing program with the goal of setting biodiesel apart from other alternative fuels and increasing consumer confidence.

Fifteen years later, Cook-Illinois is again on the leading edge of innovation — the company recently received two electric buses. Electrification of fleets may be the future, but the technology currently requires a heavy upfront investment. The electric buses each cost about $350,000. The purchase was made possible by the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust, which was established by the German carmaker to settle violations of the Clean Air Act. Illinois dedicated $10.8 million, or 10 percent of the funds it received in the settlement, to help purchase electric school buses.

“The only way I could get these buses is because costs are mostly subsidized by the government,” said Benish, who has led the company’s efforts toward a more sustainable school transportation system. “We’re going to evaluate them closely over the next couple of years. The obvious plus is zero emissions, but we’re also going to evaluate how long it will take to recharge the buses.”

He also plans to consider more than just tailpipe emissions when evaluating the overall impact on the environment. Fossil fuels — natural gas and coal — accounted for more than 60 percent of the electricity produced in the US last year. “I want to know the actual carbon footprint for a full-size electric bus, because it’s obviously big and heavy. We are going to look at how that green footprint compares to biodiesel and other options,” he says.

Cook-Illinois’ journey suggests that businesses have several factors to consider if they want to cut greenhouse gas emissions in their transportation operations.

While cost is still an overriding factor in awarding school bus contracts, the company’s environmental message resonates with school boards and parents.

“We tell them we’ve made a conscious choice to use biodiesel because it is a renewable fuel source and reduces emissions for better air quality,” Benish said. “We have gained contracts because we are a greener bus company.”