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Alternative-Fuel Vehicles - Good for the Environment, and They Save Money Too

John Van Horn



Ron Flowers, the head of Washington, DC, fleet operations, had a problem. How could he meet federal Clean Air Act requirements for his fleet and have safe, comfortable vehicles for the city staff?
The answer was an alternative-fuel vehicle, and in this case, a Honda Civic GX.
Alternative-fuel vehicles, such as those that run on natural gas -- just like the gas used for home cooking, water heating, clothes drying and space heating -- have been around for many years. You've seen the vehicles in gas company fleets for the past couple of decades.
Today, it's common to see shuttles, buses and vans running on natural gas, particularly those around airports. But what about vehicles that can be used for enforcement and other fleet-type operations?
Well, they are available, and we will be seeing more and more of them on the street in the future.
According to Flowers, his initial concern was meeting the Clean Air Act requirements placed on his city by the federal government. Seems the feds look at Washington, DC, the same way they look at states, and the Environmental Protection Agency requirements are in full force.
"Naturally, we all want to do our part for clean air; however, the EPA regulations focused our attention on our fleet," Flowers said. "We were fortunate that there were incentives from federal and state grants to offset the initial costs. However, after we got the fleet into place, we found that there were many other benefits besides the virtually zero emissions of the (compressed) natural gas-driven vehicles."
Flowers' staff discovered that there was a substantial reduction in maintenance costs. "CNG vehicles burn cleaner and require fewer oil changes and have a longer maintenance cycle," he said. "That saves money. Plus, we find there's a longer life out of the cars. We expect to replace these vehicles in seven years, rather than our typical five."
When you consider the cost of the vehicle, it's more than the upfront cost -- it's the total cost of the vehicle during its entire life, including fuel and maintenance. "There is no question that CNG vehicles, like the Civic GX, have a lower life-cycle cost than the traditional gasoline-propelled cars."
Flowers also found that CNG vehicles were less expensive to run. They get about the same mileage per gallon -- or gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) -- but natural gas is cheaper.
"We had a large number of tiny cars -- Geo's and Metro's and the like -- prior to the Civic GX's. One major problem was that they were uncomfortable for our parking enforcement officers," Flowers said. "Remember, these staffers have to get in and out of the car dozens of times a day. It's just easier to do in a larger Civic GX. Plus, we had a number of stout staffers who just couldn't fit into the tiny cars.
"The drivers were unsure in the beginning, CNG being new and all. However, after the first few days, it was a love fest," he said. "The main issue our officers had was that the public was coming up to them and asking them questions about the CNG-powered vehicles. Questions about mileage and performance and costs. Our office staff had to prepare information for the officers so they could answer these queries.
"These non-confrontational conversations were welcomed by the staff and helped with our PR -- always an issue with parking enforcement," Flowers said.
"Another thing to remember: We are in a severe environment -- hot in the summer and blizzard conditions in the winter. The vehicles need to provide heat and cooling for the enforcement officers. The CNG vehicles do that even when idling for long periods, something we avoided doing with gasoline cars.
"I did have to build my own fueling center; however, it's no more complicated than any in-house fuel operation," Flowers said. "The gas comes through the same lines that service your home. We just have a bigger pipe in from the street. The gas is then compressed and stored under pressure in tanks ready for filling the vehicles. We have no fuel truck deliveries, since the natural gas is delivered constantly through the pipeline.
"We get around 150 miles or so to the tankful. The car will do more than 200, but in our application, where the drivers spend a large part of their time idling, the mileage is a bit lower. However, when (the vehicles) are idling, they are producing no pollution, and the fuel they are burning is less expensive. The range of the CNG vehicles is solely dependent on the size of the fuel tanks. CNG takes more space than gasoline, and if you install larger tanks, you have less trunk or passenger room."
CNG vehicles are about 15% more expensive than standard gasoline-powered vehicles; however, that differential is quickly resolved with lower fuel and maintenance costs, and the unit's longer usable life.
According to Steve Ellis, Manager of Alternative-Fuel Vehicles with American Honda Motor Co., the next big concern after clean air will be alternative fuels. "You've heard about fuel cells, hybrid vehicles and fully electric cars. CNG vehicles have been around for over a decade, and the infrastructure for fueling is growing rapidly," Ellis said. "Early next year, there will be the capability for private owners to fuel their vehicles directly from the natural gas supply in their homes.
"We are talking about energy security and independence here," said Ellis, who also sits on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Alternative Fuels Committee. "A lot of our gasoline comes from oil that is sourced in some of the world's trouble spots. Alternative fuel, like CNG, is a security issue as well as an environmental issue.
"Although fuel cells may be the ultimate solution, we are at least a decade or more away from having a commercially viable fuel cell vehicle and a way to deliver the fuel on a widespread basis," Ellis said.
"Natural gas is a plentiful fuel that we have available right here in North America. Our Canadian neighbors have a tremendous supply of natural gas, and the delivery pipeline systems are already in place. Fueling stations are abundant -- mostly connected to fleet operations -- and are also uncomplicated to install.
"CNG vehicles use an alternative fuel to imported oil," Ellis said. "Municipal and statewide fleet operations can lead the way to energy independence."


Side Bar 1

Why CNG Vehicles?
* Meet all Clean Air Act and Energy Policy Act requirements
* Support energy security
* Lower fuel costs
* Lower maintenance costs
* Longer life expectancy
* Allow use of available grant funds
* Comfortable for staff use
* Increased worker job satisfaction
* Enhancement of public image


Side Bar 2

San Francisco Legislates Alternative-Fuel Requirement

San Francisco has been a leader in alternative-fuel vehicles. According to Rick Ruvolo of the city's Environmental Department, since the mid to late 1980s, San Francisco has been concerned about energy security and searching for alternatives to gasoline to power its vehicles.
Ruvolo said the city fulfills a "social conscience" in protecting the environment and providing leadership in energy security through the use of alternative-fuel and zero-emission vehicles.
It passed legislation mandating that city departments purchase alternative-fuel vehicles wherever possible and designed a guide to purchasing vehicles to assist fleet managers with their vehicle purchases.
Currently, the city has more than 700 alternative-fuel vehicles; more than 500 are CNG-powered.
The Parking Department uses small "three wheeler" type of vehicles for enforcement, Ruvolo said, and has not been able to source an alternative fuel vehicle for that application, although a number of vendors are working on the problem. He did note, however, that supervisory transportation and special operations (such as booting, emergency calls for cars blocking driveways, etc.) are meeting the alternative-fuel requirement.
They have answered numerous requests from other jurisdictions nationwide for information concerning its municipal code and guidelines on the alternative-fuel requirement.
Ruvolo can be reached at rick.ruvolo@sfgov.org.

Article Abstract from February, 2005




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