Adapting to alternative fuels
One of the toughest challenges Doug Keene faces as a fleet manager is how to comply with air-quality regulations that restrict the emissions of his trucks and equipment. As fleet services manager for the Las Vegas Valley Water District (LVVWD), Keene has to balance the air-quality improvements from using alternative fuel with the cost of retrofitting vehicles to use different fuel. “For that reason, it is getting harder to meet the alternative fuel mandates from both the state of Nevada and from the Department of Energy (DOE),” Keene says.
Since January 2001, Keene has solved the “clean air versus cost” conundrum by converting 230 of his fleet’s 757 vehicles and equipment to operate on biodiesel, a fuel partially made from organics such as soybeans. By using biodiesel, Keene has kept his fleet in compliance with both federal and state rules, while minimizing the cost of conversion to alternative fuel.
“90 percent of the vehicles we purchase with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) under 26,000 pounds must use an alternative fuel,” he explains. “Switching to biodiesel didn’t require mechanical modifications to our vehicles [compared to] what would be required for natural gas. It allowed us to satisfy DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) clean air rules at a big savings compared to switching to natural gas.”
Keene is just one of many city and county fleet managers trying to manage a difficult transition: converting his fleet to operate on fuels other than diesel or gasoline, but doing it in the most cost-effective way. Tight air-quality regulations and efforts to reduce the country’s reliance on oil imports are driving the fleets’ conversions, but it is up to the fleet managers to choose the alternative fuel that best suits their operations.
The big picture
Though an array of federal and state laws mandate many city and county fleets to use alternative fuels, the transition has been slow going. Currently, about one million alternatively fueled vehicles (AFVs) are operating in the United States, which is only a small portion of the 12 million medium- and heavy-duty trucks and 188 million light-duty vehicles in operation. Two of the main roadblocks to more widespread use of AFVs are their initial purchase price — usually several thousands of dollars more than a comparable diesel- or gasoline-powered model — and a dearth of refueling sites that provide alternative fuels.
The lack of refueling sites for AFVs is crucial. For example, only 1,600 natural gas refueling sites exist in the U.S., compared to 200,000 gasoline and diesel refueling locations. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) noted that problem in its 2000 report on the 1992 Energy Policy Act (EPAct).
“The lack of refueling stations has been a major impediment to using alternative fuel vehicles,” said the GAO in its report. “Officials from federal agencies and state governments who administer vehicle fleets cited the lack of a refueling infrastructure more than any other impediment to using alternative fuels.”
The cost of building an alternative fuel refueling station isn’t cheap, either, said the GAO. For example, the agency said it would cost more than $300,000 to install a compressed natural gas refueling facility. To reduce gasoline and diesel fuel consumption 30 percent by 2010, the Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that it would need between 60,000 to 63,900 AFV refueling stations nationwide — more than 10 times the number of AFV refueling sites currently in existence, said the GAO.
With a lack of economic incentives to spur greater alternative fuel use, government legislation has stepped in to offer some incentives. At the federal level, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) and the EPAct are encouraging or mandating certain kinds of fleets to use alternative fuels.
The CAAA designates six ozone and carbon monoxide “non-attainment” areas, which are places where pollution levels are considered high enough to affect human respiratory health. In those areas, centrally fueled fleets with 10 or more vehicles must start purchasing AFVs to help lower pollution levels. As of 2003, 90 percent of all light-duty vehicles purchased by fleets covered under the CAAA must use an alternative fuel.
EPAct seeks to reduce the U.S.’s reliance on imported oil. The act aimed to have alternate fuels replace at least 10 percent of petroleum fuel consumption by 2000, reaching 30 percent by 2010. Federal, state and local government fleets are covered under EPAct. However, EPAct applies only to light-duty vehicles with a GVWR under 8,500 pounds, meaning heavy-duty vehicles — such as dump and refuse trucks — owned by city and county fleets are not covered.
State governments have initiated their own clean-fleet programs to bolster federal efforts. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) provides up to $1,000 in incentives for fleets to buy AFVs and up to $100,000 for fueling station construction.
Both the federal DOE and EPA believe several specialized fleet niches are also prime candidates for alternative fuel use. Those include: airport ground-service fleets; delivery vehicles and private fleets; police cars and trucks; and urban and school buses. The DOE is providing a variety of public and private fleets — including city and county vehicle operations — with monetary grants and tax incentives through its Clean Cities program to boost the vehicle conversion rate to alternative fuels.
Defraying the cost
Laws can limit the type of alternative fuel a fleet can use, especially in states like California. In June 2000, the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) in southern California voted unanimously to require all refuse trucks and transit buses to convert to alternative fuels. That regulation, known as Rule 1193, requires all public and private refuse haulers within the agency’s jurisdiction — encompassing Los Angeles and several surrounding counties — owning more than 50 refuse trucks to purchase new AFVs when adding or replacing units as of July 1, 2001. Under SCAQMD’s rule, however, blended fuels — such as B20, which is a mixture of 80 percent regular diesel and 20 percent biodiesel — could not be considered for use.
City fleets were caught up in the rule as well, as SCAQMD expanded it to cover government fleet organizations. Santa Monica, Calif., for example, asked its fleet department to operate 75 percent of its vehicles on alternative fuels by 2000. By the fall of 1999, about 50 percent of the city’s 962-vehicle fleet had been converted, which included park and street maintenance vehicles, refuse packers, three-wheel parking enforcement vehicles, passenger sedans, light-duty trucks, long-haul tractors and specialty equipment vehicles. The recent economic downturn, however, has pushed the city’s conversion targets out to 2008.
To help defray the extra costs of switching to alternative fuels, Santa Monica used state grants. Through fiscal year 1999-2000, the city set aside $14.6 million to replace 313 vehicles, with $739,000 in grant funding to offset the incremental cost of purchasing heavy-duty trucks powered by alternative fuels. As of 2000, the city had 230 AFVs on the road or on order — 161 CNG vehicles, 45 propane vehicles and 24 electric vehicles. The city expects to power 409 vehicles in its fleet by alternative fuel by 2008.
Santa Monica has taken several years to add AFVs to its fleet partially because of how the vehicles are manufactured. Unlike their diesel- and gasoline-powered counterparts, AFVs must be “custom built,” with the fueling system, dashboard instrumentation and other AFV-specific components integrated into the vehicle by hand.
In the case of natural gas vehicles, for example, that means adding CNG cylinders to store natural gas at high pressures or adding liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanks to cool the gas down to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. For electric vehicles, an electric engine, battery supply and battery charging system have to be added to the chassis.
Those additions increase the time needed to ready an AFV for operation, according to Ralph Merced, the city’s fleet superintendent. “If we can get the vehicles from the manufacturers on schedule, we will meet our 75 percent goal,” he said in a report on the city’s AFV conversion effort. “The [refueling] infrastructure and everything else is in place; we just need the vehicles.”
Grant funding helped the city build infrastructure for the vehicles. The city partially funded the 1998 construction of a CNG fueling facility with a $350,000 grant from SCAQMD. Having onsite CNG refueling capability drastically reduced the cost of refueling its vehicles, Merced says.
Down the road
In the future, city and county fleets may face even more pressure to use alternative fuels as cities across the U.S. attempt to reduce air pollution. Many are taking steps now to ease the pressure later.
For example, Arlington County, Va., began using biodiesel for much of its fleet this year to combat rising pollution levels in and around Washington, D.C. A recent analysis by transportation planners at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that the region around the nation’s capital is expected to exceed vehicle exhaust pollution limits this year by 30 percent.
Because the Washington, D.C., area does not have much heavy industry, the major cause of rising air pollution levels comes from vehicles. If those levels are not lowered to meet federal regulations, the city will lose federal funds earmarked for road construction and maintenance. “We’re in a ‘non-attainment’ area for air pollution, so we are trying to reduce our fleet’s emissions to meet those requirements,” says F.I. Hiller, chief of the equipment division for Arlington County.
As a result, all of the county’s 500 vehicles now operate using B20. “We started using B20 in all our diesel-powered vehicles because we saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: clean the air and use a renewable fuel,” Hiller says.
Using B20 has cut the fleet’s particulate emissions by 22 percent and carbon monoxide levels by 20 percent. However, emissions of oxides of nitrogen have increased by 2 percent. “We use natural gas in some of our light vehicles but not in our heavy trucks. We’re not mandated to do that yet,” he explains.
For now, the county will use alternative fuel as long as it is cost effective. “There’s a major, major cost difference between natural gas technology and straight diesel or biodiesel options, so we’re still waiting to see how that price differential works out in the future,” Hiller says. “However, I think, long term, we’ll have to look at using other alternative fuels as pressure to cut emissions get stronger. We’re waiting to see how that plays out.”
Sean Kilcarr is a Fairfax, Va.-based freelance writer and senior editor for Fleet Owner magazine, a sister publication of American City & County.