Ventura Schools to Get High-Tech Diesel Buses

The Ventura Unified School District has been chosen to participate in a statewide pilot program that officials hope will take the belch out of school buses, the sting out of fuel costs and better ensure the safety of California's schoolchildren.

The Ventura district was one of 11 chosen for the first phase of the California Energy Commission's demonstration program, which was designed largely to test alternative fuels.

The district is to receive eight high-tech diesel buses and four methanol-powered buses by June, 1990, replacing 12 older buses built before federal safety standards took effect in 1977.

The district will get the buses, valued at $123,000 each, free under the program.

According to district transportation director Steve Penney, the new diesel buses, equipped with state-of-the-art features such as computerized fuel injection, will be used as an experimental control to test the efficiency of the methanol-fueled buses.

"We'll be testing them one against the other for emissions and fuel economy," Penney said.

He said the district next spring will apply for inclusion in the program's second phase, which will entail experimenting with other alternative fuels, including natural gas.

A clean-burning fuel made from natural gas or coal, methanol has been used for more than a year by Ventura County in a fleet of eight specially equipped Ford Escorts.

Their use has reduced pollutants, said Chuck Thomas, an air quality specialist with the county Air Pollution Control District.

"We've had no troubles with the methanol components," said Thomas. "They work just fine."

Thomas said the cars' only drawback is that they require special refueling centers. Additionally, methanol provides just half the mileage per gallon of conventional gasoline.

There currently are two methanol refueling sites in the county--one in Ventura, the other in Simi Valley.

The first two phases of the program will cost $60 million. It has already been appropriated from the federal government's Petroleum Violation Escrow Account, a fund created from fines paid by oil companies that overcharged their customers. An additional $40 million for the third phase has yet to be approved.

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