Across America, many local governments are setting ambitious goals to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Even those without specific goals want to respond to concerned citizens by showing a willingness to take positive action. In turn, municipal leaders are asking public service directors and fleet administrators to transition fleets. Many ask, what are the lower carbon options? How viable are they — operationally and financially? What resources are available?
In many communities, Clean Cities coalitions can be part of the solution. Clean Cities is a U.S. Department of Energy program focused on clean and sustainable transportation solutions. The DOE has designated over 80 coalitions. Some serve entire states and others cover metro areas. Coalitions can help municipal and other types of fleets on sustainability planning and implementation. They can connect fleet leaders to solution providers. Some can even help fleets track results and recognize progress toward carbon reduction and other important goals.
Depending on the location, assistance also can include understanding available incentives and how to tap them. Even where incentives are not available, municipal leaders often are surprised with what can be done by leveraging lower total cost of ownership from cleaner solutions.
Let’s take a look at some cleaner transportation solutions worth considering:
Electric Vehicles: For light-duty fleet vehicles, EVs can be a great fit, offering significant net CO2 benefits and lifecycle cost savings. EVs offer environmental benefits even if fossil fuels are the primary source of electricity because they are about four times as energy efficient as internal combustion vehicles. They offer lifecycle cost benefits because they are so inexpensive to operate and maintain. EVs fit best in higher mileage applications — 6K to 8K per year or more. Their durability allows longer replacement cycles. Daily charging needs require careful planning in partnership with others. Light duty is the sweet spot today, but heavier vehicles are becoming available.
Renewable Natural Gas: Compressed natural gas vehicles fit especially well into heavy-duty municipal operations — refuse and others. Vehicle technology and refueling is highly mature and reliable. Today, renewable natural gas from landfills and anaerobic digesters is readily available. Identical to fossil gas, suppliers integrate RNG into the gas pipeline system, then leverage the value of market-based federal policy to achieve cost parity with fossil gas. RNG offers net GHG benefits of 70% to over 100% compared with diesel. High volume use across one or several fleets is the key to achieving payback on higher initial vehicle costs, paying for refueling stations and maintenance facility upgrades.
Renewable Propane Autogas: Propane autogas performs much like gasoline because it’s stored and dispensed as a liquid. The operational sweet spot is light to medium duty, including a variety of vehicle types up to class 7. Renewable forms are becoming more available in some markets and will continue to grow. These offer similar net GHG benefits compared with RNG. Vehicles are only slightly more expensive than diesel or gasoline vehicles. Fueling infrastructure is inexpensive and straightforward. All of this contributes to lower total cost of ownership in many applications.
Biodiesel and Renewable Diesel: Biodiesel is produced from soy oil or similar renewable feedstocks and then blended with petroleum diesel — typically 20% bio and 80% petrol — for use. Renewable diesel is refined from these same feedstocks and can be used in pure form. Both are easy, “drop-in” replacements for straight petroleum diesel. Transition to biodiesel may require existing diesel tanks to be cleaned. Biodiesel also offers added lubricity and a higher cetane rating. So many fleets find it performs better. Biodiesel should be readily available everywhere, and typically at the same price as petroleum diesel. Renewable diesel availability is more limited, and cost varies by location.
High Ethanol Blends: Flexible fuel vehicles are designed to use regular gasoline or a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, or E85. Some sedans, SUVs and pickups are FFVs. E85 is available in most markets from distributors and some retailers. Vehicle performance is identical, but E85 has a lower energy content. This means fleets need to make sure they are paying at least 20% less per gallon to maintain operating cost parity. E85 offers net GHG benefits compared with gasoline, but the specific amount depends on several factors.
Efficiency Technologies: Examples of efficiency technologies are nearly endless. They include tire inflation maintenance, electrification of certain engine loads, battery management combined with anti-idling, axel placement and many others. Some solutions are available “after market,” and others can be specified for new vehicles. Net GHG benefits will be a function of the percentage of increased efficiency. Many solutions offer cost benefits within months, a few years or over the vehicle lifecycle.
Hydrogen: Today, hydrogen is a viable option for select applications. Primary examples include forklifts and transit buses. These options are expected to widen in coming years. Ultimately, experts believe that hydrogen may find its niche in heavy-duty, especially the long-haul trucking sector and certain urban and off-road sectors, while plug-in vehicles may fit best in light to medium and urban or low-speed heavy applications. The future will tell.
Sorting out best fits for any municipal fleet and developing an actionable plan is challenging. Again, this is where Clean Cities comes in. Find a coalition near you by visiting cleancities.energy.gov/coalitions/locations/. If you don’t have one, contact the U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities program directly at cleancities.energy.gov/contacts/. Embrace the journey and good luck!
Sam Spofforth has served as executive director of Columbus-based Clean Fuels Ohio since the organization’s founding in 2002. He plays a leadership role within the Clean Cities network as well as in the advanced vehicle and fuels industry. Spofforth previously ran the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of Clean Water Action and led a grassroots fundraising campaign for the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation. He earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and a Bachelor of Arts from Hiram College in Ohio.