Greening Local Fleets

bus aisle
Matthew Henry, Unsplash

In King County Washington, the public buses run on a biodiesel blend, the street lights get repaired with hybrid electric lift trucks, the public works trucks run on propane, a variety of agencies use more than a hundred hybrid vehicles, the police cars run on natural gas, and van pools entice thousands of commuters to leave their cars at home. And just last spring, the County Executive announced a partnership with local canola farmers to produce biodiesel for the Seattle’s buses.

The county’s fleet of vehicles is nationally regarded as a green leader, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, the King County police were so skeptical about switching to compressed natural gas (CNG) cruisers that King County’s fleet manager organized an opportunity for independent testers and police driving instructors to test out the CNG vehicles in the parking lot of the Seattle Superdome. After seeing that they could maneuver and fight crime just as well in CNG cars as their old gas-guzzlers, the police assented to the greening of their fleet.

When we think about moving beyond a petroleum economy, government and corporate fleets of vehicles are a logical place to start. School buses, for example, drive more than 4 billion miles each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and corporate fleets alone, operate over nine million cars and light trucks in the United States, according to Environmental Defense. These corporate fleet vehicles travel an average of 25,000 miles per year-- nearly double the average mileage, fuel use, and emissions of personal vehicles.  All this adds up to  major consumption of oil and gasoline, and major emissions of air pollutants that contribute to global warming.

Even beyond the need to minimize their large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, vehicle fleets offer an ideal opportunity to begin conversions to biofuels and hybrid technology for other reasons. Because fleet managers make decisions centrally about purchasing and maintaining a large number of vehicles, they can make choices for many vehicles at once, multiplying the environmental impact of “green” fleet decisions.

Yale Bus.
Yale's shuttle buses run on a mixture of petro-diesel and biodiesel made from cooking oil recycled from the dining halls.

“We work with institutions because of the sheer scale of their buying power,” says Matt Kittell, program manager of New American Dream’s Responsible Purchasing Network, which helps governments and companies purchase greener fleet vehicles. “When an efficiency improvement or fuel switch brings cost savings, those savings are magnified over a large fleet of vehicles, making budget-conscious fleet operators more likely to be interested.” 

And finally, fleet vehicles--whether corporate or government-- are very visible to the public as models of new technologies. Because school buses, rental cars, police cars, delivery vehicles, garbage trucks, fire engines, and city buses are such a visible part of everyday traffic, a switch to plug-in hybrid technology or to biofuels can lead the way for individual drivers who see a fleet modeling a green alternative.  Fleets can play a critical role in getting new technologies and fuel solutions to scale.

Better Government Fleets
For federal government agencies, choosing new fuels has been mandated by law; The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required that when federal and state agencies purchase new vehicles, 70 percent of those vehicles must be capable of using an “alternative fuel,” that is, one of a list of fuels that is not petroleum. In January 2007, an Executive Order from the President further mandated that federal agencies reduce petroleum use in their fleets by 20 percent through a combination of greater efficiency and the acquisition of “alternative fuel vehicles” (AFVs). 

Unfortunately, not all AFVs encouraged by the legislation are green alternatives, and some promising green alternatives aren’t included. The EPA Web site describes the Act as intended to “help reduce US dependence on foreign oil” rather than to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or pollutants. The federal definition of AFVs includes coal-derived liquid fuels and liquefied petroleum gas (dirty fuels that don’t actually improve a fleet’s overall environmental footprint), and flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on corn ethanol, but won’t in the majority of the country where the fuel is unavailable. The definition omits all hybrid-electric vehicles, despite their tremendous promise as a green technology for fleets. Local and state governments, too, have moved some or all of their fleets to biofuels, with support from the EPA’s “Clean Cities” initiative, and an increasing number of city councils have passed resolutions requiring the greening of local vehicle fleets.

For example, students in more than 130 school districts in 17 states already ride alternative-fuel buses to school, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Children in Clark County School District ride to school in buses powered by biodiesel made from used cooking oil from Las Vegas’ many restaurants and casinos.

Better Business Fleets
Corporate decision-makers for vehicle fleets have also been increasingly active in greening their impact. For example, PHH Arval, one of the major fleet licensing companies, joined with Environmental Defense last year to launch a GreenFleet program which encourages all PHH Arval clients to increase the efficiency of their fleets and to purchase carbon offsets, bringing the climate footprint of the fleets to zero. Meanwhile UPS, is experimenting with numerous petroleum alternatives in its vehicles simultaneously: fuel cells, hybrid electric vehicles, compressed natural gas, propane, liquefied natural gas, and electric cars. (Businesses considering improving the emissions of their fleets can evaluate any change for its bottom line environmental impact using a tool like the on-line Clean Fleet Guide from the Department of Energy.) 


What You Can Do

1. Urge Your Local Government to Green Their Fleet — (See below for resources.)

2. Rent Greener Cars — Next time you need to rent a car, look to rent a plug-in hybrid or other alternative fuel vehicle:

     Bio-Beetle: biodiesels for rent in Hawaii and LA ($50/day), 877/873-6121

     EV Rental: all over CA, plus cars in Las Vegas and Phoenix ($20-$50/day), 800/EV-RENTAL

     Enterprise: hybrid Saturns at most CA locations this year, 800/261-7331

3. Ship Green — In the Bay area, you can choose to ship items by way of a biodiesel fleet of trucks with Blue Sky Shipping, 415/485-6767.

4. Get on the School Bus — If you are part of a school community that relies on a fleet of schoolbuses, invite them to consider participating in the EPA’s Clean Bus USA Program, and start by promoting practices and policies that minimize schoolbus idling.



Clean Fleet Guide from the US Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program.

Environmental Defense is working to greening two corporate fleets through its Corporate Innovation programs: a partnership with PHH Arvall to reduce its fleet emissions, and one with FedEx Express to roll out a fleet of hybrid electric delivery trucks. 212/505-2100

Green Fleets for City Governments This clearinghouse from the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign helps local governments green their fleets. 510/844-0699

Plug-In Partners A grassroots campaign to communicate to automakers that American cities and counties would purchase flex-fuel plug-in hybrids if they were available. Plug-in Partners is collecting “soft” orders for plug-in hybrid vehicles from the operators of municipal fleets across the country to present to automakers. 512/322-6210

Responsible Purchasing Guide: Light-Duty Fleet Vehicles Covers procurement of socially and environmentally responsible light-duty fleet vehicles that are made with fewer toxic materials, operate more energy efficiently, improve air quality and produce less waste. The Guide includes an overview of relevant social and environmental issues; best practices for procuring and using fleet vehicles; a review of pertinent certifications and standards such as the United States EPA and California Emissions Standards; examples of procurement policies and specifications being used by reliable institutions such as California state government.$100 from Center for a New America Dream (free in print or for download with New Dream membership). 877/683-7326