All pumped up
Kent Fretwell’s road to finding the right alternative fuels for his fossil fuel-powered fleet has been full of twists and turns. As the fleet operations manager for Oregon’s Department of Administrative Services, he oversees a complicated mix of vehicles. “We’re still trying to find the best alternative to using a gasoline- or diesel-only powered vehicle while meeting all the clean air mandates we’re subject to — as well as try to control our costs as much as possible,” Fretwell says.
Fretwell’s 4,000-unit fleet consists mainly of cars and light trucks, including 455 “flex-fuel” vehicles that run on gasoline or a gasoline/ethanol fuel blend; 235 hybrid cars powered by gasoline and electric motors; 166 compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles; and a handful of trucks running on B20, a fuel composed of 80 percent regular diesel and 20 percent soybean-based biodiesel.
But, federal fleet guidelines significantly complicate Fretwell’s job. For example, the federal Energy Policy Act requires that 70 percent of vehicles operating in Metropolitan Statistical Areas, including the eight in Oregon, must use alternative fuels, such as CNG or flex fuels. So, even if hybrids proved to be a more economic and “greener” choice — with lower acquisition and operating costs than other vehicles, and reduced emissions and petroleum use — those rules also limit Fretwell and other communities to a maximum of 30 percent hybrids.
However, hybrids pose their own set of potentially complicated operational issues, Fretwell says. “I can buy a Ford flex-fuel vehicle for around $14,000, [compared to] a Toyota Prius [hybrid for about] $21,000,” he says. “They get good gas mileage, but [hybrids] haven’t been in our fleet long enough to determine their total life cycle cost. The oldest hybrid I have is a 2000 model with 110,000 miles.”
Despite those concerns, the biggest issue for hybrids is the cost to replace their battery packs, Fretwell says. “It’ll pay for itself if the vehicle can go 200,000 miles with a $1,000 battery pack replacement,” he says. “But it’s too early to tell.”
Other alternative fuels have their own drawbacks, Fretwell says. “The problem with natural gas is the huge infrastructure cost for installing fuel storage and pumping sites. For us, there is no public refueling site for CNG, [so] we had to install one ourselves.”
The lack of refueling sites also affects his flex-fuel vehicles. “There’s only one station in our area that offers E85, [a fuel with 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline],” Fretwell says. “It’s [somewhat] easier to install an E85 station, but it’s still costly.”
In fact, cost is the largest hurdle for any local or state government considering using alternative fuels for their fleets. “No matter what alternative fuel we choose, we must remember the taxpayer’s involvement in this,” says Nathaniel Ford, executive director and CEO for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA). “We have to look at alternative fuels not only in terms of their effectiveness in reducing emissions and reliance on petroleum, but also in terms of cost-efficiency. Is the fuel the best one for the long-term with the best return on the taxpayer’s money? That’s an issue a private fleet doesn’t face.”
To cut pollution production and petroleum use while staying cost-effective, many local and state government fleets are using “poly-fuel” plans, which call for the use of a variety of fuels. “We see fleets moving to a more poly-fuel alternative future to get around price spikes that may occur to some of the fuels they are using, such as natural gas or biodiesel,” says Richard Parish, senior program manager at the Colorado office of Westart-CALSTART, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that works with the public and private sectors to develop advanced transportation technologies to help clean the air, lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reduce global warming. “For example, we’re seeing more light trucks evolve toward using ethanol-blended fuels, while we’re seeing much more activity with hybrid technology for medium-duty trucks. Natural gas is still a big player in the transit bus markets, but the cost of installing the storage and refueling infrastructure is becoming more cost-prohibitive, so we see more use of hybrids in this arena.”
Bus fleets already using natural gas will most likely stay with it because it is cheaper than diesel, but it is unlikely that more will switch to natural gas. One exception, though, could be West Coast transit fleets because imports of liquefied natural gas are growing in California, which could lead to more natural gas refueling stations, Parish says. “Where fleets can really offset petroleum use the fastest and cheapest is by switching to ethanol and biodiesel fuel blends,” he says. “Those are the easiest to implement. That’s why biofuels are coming on strong.”
Brian McVeigh, general manager for General Motor’s (GM) fleet and commercial division, says that ethanol has some natural advantages, as it can be made from soybeans, sweet beets, sugarcane and other plants. McVeigh points to Brazil’s success in totally eliminating oil imports by mandating a switch to pure ethanol — E100, which is made from sugar cane — for vehicles. “The country put legislation on the books seven or eight years ago, and now they are totally oil independent,” he says. “Brazil’s not the same size as the U.S., of course, but they’ve shown it can be done.”
However, GM, which has built 1.5 million flex-fuel vehicles and aims to add 400,000 more this year, knows that switching to ethanol in the U.S. could pose a huge challenge for fleet managers and the traveling public. Even though ethanol can be delivered using the current infrastructure with minimal modification and investment, manufacturing more of the fuel could compete with the nation’s food supply unless it is made from inedible plants, such as switch grass. “If we can develop an ethanol base stock without cultivation, use enzymes to break down that plant cellulose into useable ethanol, and not compete with the global food markets, then the price point drops and it becomes a much more viable alternative,” McVeigh says.
Communities see hybrid technology, especially for larger vehicles, as a way to take advantage of the pollution- and fuel-reduction benefits of biofuels, as well as cleaner versions of traditional fuels, such as ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD). The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is investing in more diesel-hybrid buses, ordering 20 diesel-electric units as part of its recent 265 low-emission bus order. “The main advantage of the hybrid is that it uses less fuel and, therefore, produces fewer fuel emissions,” says Ibis Antongiorgi, CTA spokesperson. “Performance results will help determine if hybrid buses are suitable as future additions to CTA’s fleet.”
In March 2003, CTA converted its buses and non-revenue or support vehicles to ULSD, as well. “By converting to ULSD fuel in 2003, we’re well ahead of schedule in implementing the 2007 federal emission requirements for reduced particulate matter and carbon monoxide,” Antongiorgi says. “Last year, our annual emissions level was 22 percent less than in 1997.”
Antongiorgi adds that CTA’s field personnel use four hybrid-electric Ford Escapes and two GMC hybrid pickup trucks to monitor bus route performance, transport materials and travel to maintenance facilities. CTA also uses 23 vans in its non-revenue fleet that are powered by compressed natural gas. “By its very nature, public transit is environmentally friendly as it reduces the number of cars on the road, so incorporating green technology in our fleet upgrades whenever possible furthers efforts to reduce emissions, improve air quality and improve fuel efficiency,” Antongiorgi says.
San Francisco MTA’s strategy also includes using hybrids to reduce pollution levels and save money. “Hybrids clearly offer us a way to combine our three main goals: reduce pollution, fuel consumption and maintenance costs, as we begin to put in place our long-term alternative fuel strategy,” Ford says. “Right off the bat, they reduce particulate matter by 90 percent, oxides of nitrogen by 40 percent and [carbon dioxide] by 20 percent while reducing fuel use and maintenance costs.”
Planning for the future
San Francisco’s MTA started buying the first of 56 diesel electric hybrid buses this year after an exhaustive alternative fuel pilot program. “These buses are going to bring us one step closer to reaching MTA’s goal of being emissions-free in San Francisco by 2020,” Ford says.
The hybrid buses achieved 35 percent better fuel economy compared to conventional diesel buses, according to a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study. The NREL study also found that the typical service interval for diesel-hybrid buses was about 7,000 miles, compared to 5,000 miles for natural gas and 4,000 miles for diesel.
After delivery of the new buses, Ford says electric hybrid buses will comprise 11 percent of MTA’s fleet and, in conjunction with the other hybrid buses, cable cars and trolleys, electric-powered vehicles will make up 50 percent of the agency’s fleet.
Eventually, Ford hopes to invest in fuel cell buses — vehicles powered by hydrogen that emit only water and oxygen — but that technology currently is too expensive. “Right now, a fuel cell-powered transit bus costs $4 million, compared to a $300,000 diesel bus and a $488,000 diesel-hybrid bus,” Ford says. “We have to think of the taxpayer as we seek ways to cut fuel use and pollution. If we wanted to use CNG, it would require us to invest upwards to $22 million in new vehicles and a refueling station. By choosing hybrids, we are using more tried and true technology that’s proved it can generate cost savings and be reliable.”
In the meantime, San Francisco is beginning to save with the goal of switching to fuel cell vehicles. “The local government puts mandates in place for cleaner air, so we have to find ways to meet those mandates while still investing in the future,” Ford says. “We have to think strategically as we plan our vehicle purchases for the near- and long-term.”
Antongiorgi notes that Chicago’s transit operation was the first agency to test fuel cell buses from September 1997 through March 2000. “We’ve helped with [fuel cell engine] development by gathering data from use in the design and development of commercial heavy-duty fuel cell engines,” Antongiorgi says. All of the alternative fuel technologies CTA uses are still in the development stage, Antongiorgi says. “As advances continue in hybrid and clean diesel technology, along with other environmentally friendly initiatives, we’ll monitor their cost efficiency, performance and environmental benefits.”
Sean Kilcarr is senior editor of Fleet Owner, a sister publication of American City & County.