Net Zero Car Fleet— Easy Talk, Hard Walk

By Mike Dunphy

Photo courtesy of the Dept. of Public Works.

In a city and community that proudly professes a net-zero energy goal, it’s perhaps surprising that Montpelier’s fleet contains only one electric vehicle—a street-rated cart used by the rec department—and no hybrids among its 70 or so vehicles. That’s especially notable considering the transportation industry puts out the largest dose of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—43 percent of all emissions (as of 2015), according to the Energy Action Network.

It’s not a lack of interest within city government that keeps any change from happening, but technology and cost, not to mention a morass of challenging logistics that accompany each step forward. First, most municipal vehicles are heavy duty and specialized, and adequate electric and hybrid alternatives do not yet exist, according to Tom McArdle, director of the Public Works Department. “The capabilities and requirements for our fleet impacts and limits the options currently available for electrically powered equivalents,” he explains. “No hybrid vehicle now on the market will meet our performance requirements.”

Todd Provencher, director of the city’s Finance Department, sheds a bit more light: “The bulk of municipal work requires vehicles above the half-ton weight-rating class for carrying tools and equipment or for construction season and winter operations.” In these cases, efficiency inevitably must take a back seat to reliability. “First and foremost,” McArdle points out, “the equipment must meet or exceed the specifications listed in the bid documents. We also consider reliability, dependability, life cycles, cost, parts availability, and other factors. When providing essential services such as plowing snow or hauling heavy loads, efficiency is probably not going to be a deciding factor.”

Things may start to change soon. In 2020, the first hybrid patrol vehicle will come to the police department, with the purchase of a 2020 Ford Interceptor—the first pursuit-rated hybrid police SUV. This comes after many years of exploring options with little success, says Montpelier Police Chief Anthony Facos.

“I’ve been trying to look at effective vehicles that would meet our police mission, but the technology has not been there for general patrol purposes.” The safety of officers is paramount for Facos, which sets a high bar for any vehicle, especially considering the huge amount of equipment that goes inside the vehicle and the need to be essentially on the road 24/7. It’s here that the availability of the technology smacks into the cost, with the Interceptor running about $5,000 more than the usual cruiser, according to Facos. “It’s much more than we are used to spending, and we just haven’t been able to swing it in the budget so far.”

Public Works also has its eyes on a van and pickup truck offered by AMP Electric Vehicles under the brand “workhorse,” which could replace at least one of the water/sewer mechanic vans and possibly be used for non-plowing purposes, but it’s not on the market in this area yet.

As for non-heavy-duty administrative vehicles, Montpelier typically doesn’t use them, and almost all travel by city vehicles is done within the city limits for work-related purposes, Provencher points out. “When employees travel outside of the city, it is typically for training or meetings, in which case many employees use their personal vehicles and are reimbursed for mileage.” In fact, only three vehicles could even potentially become hybrids, but any transition would have to wait until the current ones reach the end of their lifespan and are cycled out. It’s also important to realize, Provencher notes, that while hybrids have had significant gains in mileage during highway travel, there is far less improvement in efficiency for in-town driving, which Montpelier’s fleet is predominantly used for.

Some carbon relief for heavy-duty diesel vehicles may come through the use of “biodiesel,” which essentially is made from fuel made from waste plant-based cooking oil mixed with regular fossil-based diesel.

The most common mix is called B20, indicating 20 percent biodiesel. There are already two local suppliers—Bourne’s Energy in Morristown and Black Bear Biodiesel in Plainfield, which claims to have displaced 325,000 gallons of regular diesel in 2018 alone, and 1.25 million gallons over the past five years. However, the use of biodiesel remains at the discussion phase for now, according to Mayor Anne Watson. “There’s no specific plan yet,” she explains, “although I have asked Tom McArdle to come up with a plan.”

For a model, they might look to Keene, New Hampshire, which powers 68 vehicles of its fleet with B20 for “the better part of 16–17 years,” according to Jim Mountford, Fleet Services Operations Manager of Keene. For Mountford, using biofuel has been almost a wholly positive experience. “We’ve had phenomenal luck running B20 in everything from equipment that’s dated to 1969 till today,” he declares. He also pushes back on the many reported limitations of using biodiesel, starting with its tendency to gel in winter temperatures. The answer is “winter diesel,” which comes in several forms, such as B5, which uses kerosene in the mix. In Keene, Mountford prefers adding a chemical mix called K100 to B20, which he’s used successfully over the past five years.

Since biodiesel acts more as a solvent than oil, it can also create problems with older fuel tanks, picking up leftover dirt and sludge, which then clogs fuel filters. Here, too, Mountford downplays the issue and says it’s only for a short period when the biofuel is introduced.  “If you are putting it in a piece of equipment that’s been running regular diesel fuel, especially the old stuff, for 10 or 15 years prior to trying to run B20, then you are going to have to change the fuel filters a couple of times in the worst case scenario. Once that’s done, which would be a couple of filter changes, quite frankly, the problem’s over with.”

Of course, bringing biofuel to Montpelier could require a new fuel tank, and Bourne’s Energy has actually offered to let the city use a tank previously used for B5 at the gas station next to the Agway on Route 2 and transfer it to DPW property—a move recommended by Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee in a report “Powering Montpelier’s Fleet with Renewable Energy,” published on March 20.

Naturally, this raises many questions and concerns in terms of where to locate the tank, what the costs are, and of course, potential dangers—tank liability, security, spill containment, fire suppression, etc. “One of several questions we needed to answer,” McArdle considers, “is where a tank of this size could be safely and conveniently located at the DPW facility. There are other issues we would need to explore further if we opt for an above-ground fuel tank including weather protection, power supply for the pump, a fire suppression system, security, liability, and permit requirements.” Nonetheless, Mayor Watson wants to keep discussions going, albeit carefully. “I’m very interested in this prospect, but I want to make sure DPW is comfortable with that plan, and the council is up to speed.”

Any major step forward toward adding biodiesel to Montpelier’s car fleet would also run into budgetary considerations, as the fuel budget is approved by the city council and voters. The $1 per gallon additional cost of fuel, according to McArdle, would lead to approximately $5,000 more in the budget if five vehicles were converted, making implementation a policy discussion with the city manager and city council.

“It’s not just about the cost,” says Watson. “Making a transition to another type of fuel requires a lot of logistic changes. None of this is prohibitive, but it will take time to sort out.”

Read the entire report, “Powering Montpelier’s Fleet with Renewable Energy,” at netzeromontpelier.org

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