More Than Buzzwords

The image of a company like good looks and fashionable clothes for a person's neighbor in the street, office or classroom is not the whole story.

Jun 1st, 2010
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A Good Fleet is More Than a Colorful Image

By Paul Hull

The image of a company—like good looks and fashionable clothes for a person's neighbor in the street, office or classroom—is not the whole story. It's the same with vehicles, isn't it? Good looks are nice but the efficiency, comfort and practicality of the vehicle are more important. If talking specifically about utility fleets, the efficiency and cost-effectiveness are more important than the image. This isn't about avoiding dirty vehicles or sloppy crews. When it comes to the running of fleet vehicles, there are more relevant issues than their color and their shape. Green, for a utility fleet, is not just a pretty color, nor the reflection of any influential, external pressure.

The Electric Utility Fleet Managers group, which meets annually in Williamsburg, is an impressive group that knows what it's talking about and is clearly committed to the perfection of its operations. These men and women don't toss buzzwords about to impress and confuse others, but they can answer questions about the procedures and attitudes that make a fleet efficient. That fleet can be just a few vehicles or may be counted in the thousands; it may serve a remote, rural area or a congested metropolis. The commitment seems equally solid for all.

The word "green" is seen in many advertisements and heard on the news. People have lived through phases where sustainability, micro-this and macro-that, equipment that is deployed rather than sent to a job, and dozens of sporting analogies are thrown at them to convince them of the merits of a particular product, procedure or piece of equipment. A green utility fleet is one that is an asset to the community it serves and the proud possession of a good utility, private or public. Many communities have been making their own vehicles green for some years now. "Green" is not a new word; it's been applied to fleets for at least a decade. Communities aware of the advantages of having green fleets (for buses and refuse trucks, for example) can report savings in money and air pollution that has been achieved. Communities have addressed all the aspects that make a fleet green; the size of the vehicles used; the elimination of some vehicles that were shown to be unnecessary or mere luxury perks; and the careful analysis and redoing of schedules for vehicles in travel, operation and maintenance. A green fleet involves everything in the fleet: equipment, fuel….. and people.

Fuel is only one issue

Vehicles run on fuel and, for many years, it was assumed that fuel would be gasoline or diesel. Today it has become obvious that there are other fuels that can run fleets, too. Gas? Biofuel? Hydrogen plus? Something ending in –anol? One of the newer and successful fuels so far is still a fossil fuel, but it offers advantages over the traditional gasoline and diesel. Natural gas is plentiful in the United States. It's probably the cleanest of the fossil-based fuels. For electricity, it produces less than half as much carbon pollution as coal; for transportation, it produces up to 24 percent less than oil. Technological advances in recent years have accented the benefits of natural gas, with one of them the fact that natural gas is native to the U.S. and does not arrive as an expensive import that makes us dependent on other countries. The most significant challenge with developing a fleet of natural gas-powered vehicles is that utilities must have the infrastructure in place that will enable competent, reliable refueling for the vehicles. If the fleet is large or centrally based, or both, that problem is less significant than if the fleet comprises only a few vehicles. In some communities compressed natural gas may offer fewer refueling problems than liquefied natural gas.

The other challenge with natural gas-powered vehicles is that a good engine that will run on that fuel must be found. Take a look at what Cummins offers today. Ask about Cummins Westport engines; they are being used by some of the leading heavy-duty truck manufacturers, like Paccar, Kenworth, Mack Trucks, Peterbilt and Freightliner. What may be most significant about this step forward is that a major manufacturer like Cummins has taken the lead in advancing the use of a new fuel. The Cummins Westport ISL G engine can be powered by either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG) and currently offers five ratings: 250, 260, 280, 300 and 320 hp.

Fleets for utilities include more than heavy-duty vehicles. "The number of natural gas vehicles (NGV) for light-, medium- and heavy-duty vehicles is increasing steadily," said Stephen C. Yborra, director of market analysis, education and communications at the Clean Vehicle Education Foundation, which has many interesting and helpful resources for those interested in new fuels for their fleets. ATT, UPS and Verizon have started using NGVs for their big fleets—thousands of vehicles, not just a handful here and there. Yborra has seen how potential users gain enthusiasm when they see leaders in their sectors adopt new technologies and techniques for vehicles of different sizes, not just for the biggest ones. "Ford and GMC are leading the way in this area now, with the F450, F550 and GM 8.1 liter vehicles," Yborra said. When considering the fleet, don't forget the pickups and other vehicles that are used by managers and supervisors—vehicles that often don't carry aerial lift equipment or jobsite equipment. Some utilities have determined that executive vehicles don't have to be large and inefficient because they often carry only one person. The savings (in both money and pollution) realized by downsizing such vehicles has been dramatic in some communities.

Keep an eye on new technologies

Utilities must try to keep up with new technologies that could help their fleets—in efficiency and their bottom line. On April 30, 2010, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it will award more than $100 million in ARPA-E funding for 37 research projects that produce advanced biofuels more efficiently from renewable electricity instead of sunlight, design completely new types of batteries to make electric vehicles more affordable, and remove carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants in a more cost-effective way. Yes, the research into better ways to produce and use energy (or fuels) for all consumer needs, including transportation, is continuing every day. There is a responsibility to research and evaluate such new technologies.

To maintain the belief that no fuel will ever replace "good ole gasoline and diesel" is about the same as proclaiming that "them fancy motor cars will never replace good old horses." There are several avenues along which research is proceeding. One of the words seen frequently in recent months is "butanol," not new, but with considerable potential. Look for developments that include that word. Expect objections from those who are making great profits from today's fuels, just as any new technology (like the computer!) faces insult and mockery from those who profit from the technologies it replaces—but keep an honest eye on the potential of new technologies and fuels for the utility industry. An aspect of new technologies and fuels that is often ignored by objectors is that it will make fleets more efficient and less expensive, apart from any environmental or political benefits.

This "greening" of the fleets will all start with planning. Included in the master plan will be goals such as a decrease in expenditure on fuel of X percent per year, a decrease in poor emissions of X percent per year, a reduction in the size of the fleets, the miles traveled and the size of the vehicles involved, and miles-per-gallon stipulations for all vehicles purchased. The percentages stated don't need to be huge. Even a 1 percent decrease in fuel expenditure, for example, could bring significant benefits for a utility.

It's exciting. It makes sense for providers and customers. It's most promising for utilities and their customers. If utilities can just stop thinking of "green" as a colorful, cute (almost childish) description and realize that it means worthwhile, efficient, clean, user-friendly and everything that is good and sensible, then utilities will all have green fleets tomorrow. This month, the Electric Utility Fleet Managers are holding their annual conference again in Williamsburg. There will undoubtedly be some excellent moves forward towards the complete greening of our utility fleets.

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