Green Light for Green Vehicles
The government vehicles on the road today soon will seem as quaint as the horse and buggy. Government purchasers and fleet managers are leading a quiet revolution to bring more environmentally friendly vehicles into government fleets. In an attempt to combat global warming, government fleet managers are working to improve the fuel efficiency of their fleets and even are experimenting with some of the most promising green transportation technologies to emerge from the laboratory.
Environmental Impacts of Automobiles
While no one denies the contributions automobiles have made to improving life in the United States, there are hidden environmental costs to the more than 240 million vehicles on the road today, including the 10 million vehicles that are part of public or private fleets. Automobile emissions are one of the most significant producers of global warming pollutants, producing one-third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Carbon dioxide is emitted whenever any fuel is burned. Every gallon of gasoline, for example, produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide and helps fuel global warming. In fact, highway vehicles in the United States emit more global warming pollution than the total global warming pollution emitted from any country other than China or Russia.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the only way to reduce a vehicle’s carbon dioxide emissions is to reduce fuel consumption. Improved fuel efficiency reduces global warming impacts. A 5-mile-per-gallon (mpg) improvement in fuel efficiency for the average driver eliminates 2,800 pounds of global warming pollution per year.
In addition to contributing to global warming, automobiles are significant sources of the air pollutants that cause smog and other unhealthy air conditions. Automobile pollution is linked to asthma, cancer, heart disease and brain damage.
The challenge for green purchasers is finding automobiles that provide the benefits and convenience of a modern automobile without all the negative environmental impacts.
Green Fleet Policies
Federal agencies and state and local governments are adopting green fleet policies that encourage or require agencies to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles or vehicles powered by non-traditional fuels such as hydrogen, biodiesel, compressed natural gas or ethanol. Many policies date to the early 1990s, when governments first passed policies to reduce vehicle emissions following passage of the 1992 Environmental Policy Act (EPAct).
Santa Monica, Calif.’s 1993 policy established a goal of powering 75 percent of its fleet with alternative fuels by the year 2000. According to city officials, today 81 percent of its current non-emergency fleet is alternatively fueled. City officials are planning to formally establish a new goal this fall.
The city of Arcata, Calif., is finalizing its green fleet policy. The policy acknowledges that 27 percent of the city’s global warming emissions is attributed to the city’s vehicle fleet. It establishes goals for reduced fuel use and the purchase of ultrahigh-efficiency vehicles, sets a preference for alternative-fuel vehicles over traditional ones and encourages the use of biodiesel. It also recognizes the use of emerging technologies both as a way to reduce the city’s contributions to global warming and as a way to stimulate the market for the technologies so they are more widely available throughout the community.
Many other state and local governments have policies in place to improve fleet fuel efficiency and to begin transitioning to alternative fuels. Among the many policies identified are policies in: California; Connecticut; Illinois; Massachusetts; Minnesota; North Carolina; Oregon; Texas; Los Angeles; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Kansas City, Mo.; and King County, Wash.
New Vehicle Technologies
Governments are introducing a variety of green technology vehicles into their vehicle fleets as a way of reducing their global warming impacts. Some of the new technologies include:
- Hybrid-electric vehicles.
- Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles.
- Alternative-fuel vehicles.
- Fuel-cell vehicles.
- Supercompact vehicles.
Hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV) – such as the popular Toyota Prius and the hybrid-electric version of the Ford Escape – have a highly efficient internal combustion engine and a battery-powered electric motor. The HEVs automatically switch between the gasoline engine and the electric motor to move the vehicle. When running on the electric motor, HEVs virtually eliminate vehicle emissions.
HEVs are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles currently made. The well-known Toyota Prius, for example, boasts 60 mpg in city driving and 51 mpg on the highway. Several studies, including one conducted by King County, Wash., suggest that the fuel savings and reduced maintenance costs of HEVs offset the additional initial cost within five years. As gasoline prices continue to climb and the technology costs decline, the payback period will decrease.
Not all HEVs are equally beneficial. The Union of Concerned Scientists has identified a variety of “hollow
hybrids” that use HEV technology to provide additional vehicle power without any significant improvement in environmental efficiency. For additional information, see http://www.hybridcenter.org.
HEVs are particularly popular in government fleets and other large vehicle fleets. As of September 2006, more than 150 government entities in the United States reported including HEVs ranging from the Prius to city buses in their fleets. Among the largest HEV purchasers are Los Angeles with 460, Seattle with 325 and Miami-Dade County with 206.
Private fleets also are joining the trend. New York City recently ordered all 13,000 city taxi cabs to be hybrid-electric vehicles by 2012. Hertz and Avis are beginning to integrate HEVs into their vehicle fleets, with Hertz pledging to have 3,400 Priuses in its fleet by 2008. Avis says that it already has 1,000 Priuses in its fleet.
Plug-In Hybrid-Electric Vehicles
While not yet commercially available, plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs) are supercharged versions of the HEVs described above, with some reporting fuel efficiency of almost 100 mpg. A PHEV has a slightly larger battery pack that is charged by plugging the vehicle into a standard electrical outlet. The larger battery size allows a PHEV to travel further using only its electric motor. When battery power is no longer sufficient to propel the vehicle, the highly efficient internal combustion engine kicks in to move the vehicle and recharge the battery.
The battery power of PHEVs preparing to enter the market allows the vehicles to be driven between 20 and 60 miles using only battery power. Given that the typical vehicle only travels between 25 and 50 miles per day, the typical PHEV would produce zero emissions on most days other than the emissions associated from generating the electricity at the power plant. Even assuming a particularly dirty electrical power source – such as electricity generated by a coal-fired power plant – the PHEV could significantly reduce global warming pollution when compared to a traditional vehicle or even an HEV.
It appears that Santa Monica, Calif., is the first government to have a PHEV as part of its fleet. Anxious to begin testing the environmental benefits of PHEVs, Santa Monica’s fleet manager worked with a local contractor to convert an existing vehicle to PHEV technology. The vehicle has been performing well and Santa Monica is awaiting the commercial arrival of the technology.
Others also are preparing to embrace PHEV technology when it becomes more widely available. In 2006, the Minnesota State Legislature created a plug-in hybrid task force and established plug-in hybrid-electric objectives and priorities. It also established plug-in hybrid specifications so fleet managers will be ready to buy when PHEVs become available.
Alternative-fuel vehicles (AFVs) are found in all federal-agency and state-government fleets and many larger municipalities as a result of EPAct requirements. EPAct requires state governments and federal-agency departments to ensure that at least 75 percent of the new vehicles they purchase are capable of operating on alternative fuels.
AFVs include any dedicated, flexible-fuel or dual-fuel vehicle designed to operate on at least one alternative fuel. Dedicated AFVs operate only with an alternative fuel such as compressed natural gas. Flexible-fuel vehicles can operate on gasoline, the alternative fuel or combinations of the two. Dual-fuel AFVs have two separate fuel systems; one for traditional gasoline and one for the alternative fuel.
The alternative fuels covered by EPAct include:
- Natural gas (liquid or compressed).
- Others (e.g., liquefied coal).
HEVs are not considered alternative-fuel vehicles under EPAct. It remains unclear to government fleet managers whether the PHEVs – with their ability to travel significantly greater distances using only electric power – will count under EPAct.
While government fleets have a variety of vehicles capable of running on alternative fuels, most of the vehicles continue to rely on gasoline. As gas prices rise and alternative fuels become more widely available, government fleets will be able to quickly capture the financial and environmental savings by switching to alternative fuels.
There currently are 5,600 alternative-fuel filling stations located throughout all 50 states. While the number of alternative fueling stations continues to increase, they still represent only 3 percent of the 170,000 stations in the United States. For a list of alternative fueling station locations, visit the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center at http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/infrastructure/refueling.html.
One of the most anticipated transportation technologies is fuel-cell-powered vehicles. Fuel-cell vehicles use hydrogen as a fuel and combine it with oxygen in the air to produce water and electricity. The electricity is used to power the vehicle, and the water is emitted as exhaust. Fuel-cell vehicles promise high-performance, long-distance vehicles that emit nothing but water vapor from the tailpipe.
While still years away from commercial development, a number of government purchasers already are actively involved in examining the technology. The California Fuel Cell Partnership is working with California municipalities to test fuel-cell-powered buses and passenger vehicles. There currently are 179 fuel-cell vehicles operating on California roads.
California also is working to develop what Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refers to as “the Hydrogen Highway,” a long stretch of California roads where it will be possible to refuel a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle. It currently includes 24 hydrogen fueling stations, with 15 additional ones under construction.
Attempting to improve fuel efficiency and ease traffic congestion, Portland, Ore., has become the first government in the United States to buy a hyperefficient Smart car. The Smart car is a very compact two-passenger, three-cylinder, gasoline-powered vehicle that gets 60 mpg on the highway and 50 mpg in the city – while remaining capable of traveling at speeds up to 80 mph. At less than 8 feet long, the cars are easy to park, even in congested city conditions. Available in Europe for years, the Smart car only recently has entered the U.S. markets.
Portland officials report that the vehicle has been popular. It embodies the city’s efforts to reduce its environmental impacts while providing an efficient and effective method for getting officials around the city.
While 95 percent of the vehicles currently on U.S. roads today are conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, government purchasers are working hard to pave acceptance for more environmentally friendly alternatives. Government purchases of alternatively fueled vehicles, hybrid-electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles and other superefficient technologies are building momentum for less polluting transportation modes, reducing the threat of global warming and creating a world in which the United States is less dependent on foreign oil.
Alternative Fuels Data Center – Describes the benefits and availability of the alternative fuels encouraged under the 1992 Energy Policy Act (EPAct).
California Fuel Cell Partnership – Provides information on California’s efforts to rapidly expand the use of fuel-cell vehicles, including information on fuel-cell vehicles and a map of hydrogen fueling stations.
Clean Fleet Guide – Outlines strategies for improving a fleet’s environmental and fuel efficiency.
Fuel Economy Guide – Provides the information necessary to identify the most fuel-efficient vehicles. Also reports the “energy impact score” for all cars and light trucks.
Hybrid Vehicle Calculator – Allows users to compare the costs of hybrid-electric vehicles with traditional vehicles based on initial purchase price, operating and maintenance costs and residual resale value.
Responsible Purchasing Network – Publishes responsible purchasing guides, including the 40-page “Responsible Purchasing Guide for Light-Duty Fleet Vehicles,” which describes the growing variety of more efficient vehicle options, fuel types and relevant standards and specifications.
Note from the Author
Special thanks to Matt Kittell of the Center for a New American Dream’s Responsible Purchasing Network (RPN). His research and contributions to the RPN “Responsible Purchasing Guide for Light-Duty Fleet Vehicles” were very helpful when writing this article.
About the Author
Scot Case has been researching and promoting responsible purchasing issues for 15 years. He has consulted with the world’s largest purchasers and the world’s largest companies. He currently is vice president of TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, which manages the EcoLogo program to identify more environmentally preferable products. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] or in Reading, Pa., at (610) 779-3770.