Joining Forces to Accelerate Green Fleet Adoption

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If you’re looking to green your fleet in a way that’s good for both the environment and the business, you don’t have to go about it alone.

That’s the message of Clean Cities (https://cleancities.energy.gov/), which was formed in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Energy and, today, has nearly 100 local coalitions that bring together businesses, fuel providers, vehicle fleets, government agencies and community organizations all pursuing the same goal: cutting petroleum use in transportation. Some of the program’s recent utility fleet success stories include Pacific Gas and Electric, Public Service Company of New Mexico and Atlantic County Utilities Authority in New Jersey.

The idea behind Clean Cities is that investing in green technologies at a meaningful scale can be a high-risk, high-cost endeavor for most fleets to shoulder alone. But what if you could connect with other fleet managers and experts who have real-world experience with vehicle electrification, natural gas, propane autogas, biodiesel or whatever technology you’re looking to deploy?

You could significantly reduce risk and tap into economies of scale that make your green initiative more affordable – and more compelling to the business.

It’s Clean Cities that helps make those connections happen at the local level and across the country, said Dennis Smith, Clean Cities national director, who, prior to joining the program in 2001, served as director of energy services at Atlanta Gas Light Co., a large Atlanta-based utility.

“The basis of what makes the Clean Cities coalition network successful is this idea of teaming up – not just locally but also with different cities around the country – to share their experiences and lessons learned,” Smith said. “And by joining forces, they can really accelerate the adoption of the technology.”

Matching the Technology with the Application
One area where Clean Cities assists fleet managers is providing access to technical experts who can help you determine which alternative fuel technology would best fit the fleet application and your organization.

For example, what fueling infrastructure do you need to have in place to ensure the technology is practical for day-to-day use in a particular application? What will be the impact on vehicle maintenance and the qualifications of the technicians you need to work on those vehicles? What modifications, if any, do you need to make to your maintenance shop to safely accommodate working with certain alternative fuels?

Getting informed answers to questions like these is important because, when you consider that the technology could add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of each vehicle, along with any capital investment for fueling infrastructure and potential shop modifications, a major mistake today could seriously undermine support for future green fleet proposals in your organization.

“A lot of what Clean Cities does is to play matchmaker – to help fleets decide which fuel or which specific vehicle would work best in a particular application,” Smith said. “Each of these green technologies performs a little differently or would be better suited for a different application.”

Smith said that fleet managers can also get access to tools and calculators through Clean Cities that can help them perform feasibility studies to determine which types of technologies could save them the most fuel and achieve the quickest payback.

The Power of Collaboration
When it comes to adopting green fleet technology, fueling infrastructure is a major hurdle for many fleets to overcome. Clean Cities provides a forum where you can connect with other fleets that are looking to engage in similar initiatives, presenting opportunities to collaborate in ways that might reduce infrastructure costs for all parties involved.

“With most of these alternative fuels, you need to have a new kind of fueling station or electric charger or something,” Smith said. “And it's not cost-effective for everybody to always have their own fuel station. So, you need to combine forces with other fleets, utilities or other entities in the area to see who's like-minded and wants to do something similar. And maybe by teaming up, you're going to use enough fuel to make it cost-effective for either you or another outside group to come in and help build those fueling stations.”

But you not only have to consider potential capital costs of building on-site fueling, you also need to learn about the logistics and permitting processes to make those projects happen.

“If fleet managers have never done this before and don't understand what permits they need from the city to install their fueling station, many times the Clean Cities coalition can help with that by introducing them to the fire marshal or to another fleet that did exactly the same thing and can show them how that was done,” Smith said. “So, a lot of what happens is forming the right teams and partnerships so that people can benefit from all of that kind of knowledge. That's the real value, I think, of why people would want to be involved [with Clean Cities]. Otherwise, they're left feeling that they're doing it on their own, or they're the first to try to do this, and they're a pioneer. But they can really do it so much more quickly and effectively – and almost guarantee success – if they're teaming up with people who've done it before.”

Navigating the Funding Landscape
Government incentives and grant programs for certain alternative fuel technologies are in a constant state of flux and differ across states and municipalities. So, how do you keep up? How do you navigate this shifting landscape to determine which programs your fleet qualifies for?

“One of the first things that people usually think about when they approach the Clean Cities coalition is, ‘Do you have access to any grant money or any funding sources to help us?’ And that is something that the coalitions are good at,” Smith said. “Sometimes, over the years, Clean Cities has had some grants or award money where we can help with projects, and other times when we don't, sometimes the states have funding. Or there may be other incentives available. Clean Cities can help connect the dots to make sure that fleets are aware of all of the incentives or the local or regional or state laws that may have benefits for them.”

Getting Involved
What level in the organization usually takes the lead in working with Clean Cities to launch a green fleet initiative? Is it the fleet manager, or does senior management drive this process?

“Most of the time it's the fleet manager, but with some of the big fleets, senior management does get involved, particularly when you're talking about large vehicle purchases and the millions of dollars that need to be justified to a board of directors or at public hearings, particularly where utilities are involved,” Smith said. “But fleet managers definitely have to be involved because they're usually crunching the numbers and specifying the vehicles. And they're the ones responsible on a day-by-day basis to make sure the vehicles do what they need to do.”

So, what’s the first step for fleet managers to get involved with Clean Cities?

“Each Clean Cities coalition is a little different, but the best starting point is to go to the Clean Cities home page and enter your ZIP code to see where the closest Clean Cities coalition is to you,” Smith said. “It tells you who the local coordinator – the lead person – is, along with their contact information. Then contact them to find out when the next meeting is scheduled.”

What can fleet managers expect at the meetings?

Smith offered this description: “It’s like a Rotary Club of sorts for people who are interested in [alternative fuel technology] topics. Sometimes the meetings are at fleet locations so that you can talk to the fleet manager or drivers at that location to see what their experiences have been with a particular technology.”

Utility Fleets Leading the Way
Smith said that many utility fleets have been especially active leaders in Clean Cities over the years. “The utility fleets have a unique perspective in that many of them serve as the pace-setters – the pioneers – in trying out these technologies. Whether it's a gas or electric utility, they're some of the first organizations that get out there to try the natural gas or the electric vehicles. They feel like they should lead by example, and many of those utilities have served that role.”

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