The alternative fuel program in Colorado Springs, Colo., expanded when the Fleet Management Division installed an ethanol fuel (E85) pump at its central fleet maintenance facility. The fueling station serves 100 flex-fuel vehicles owned by the city and Colorado Springs Utilities.

Colorado Springs has been aggressively expanding its alternative fuel use since December 2003, when it began using biodiesel in vehicles with diesel engines. To date, the city has dispensed 1.4 million gallons of the fuel. “We have such a large biodiesel program because we are able to use [it] in all the vehicles that use regular diesel,” says Nick Kittle, fleet finance manager. “It doesn't require any retrofitting on our part.”

At the same time, the city has been replacing older vehicles with electric, hybrid or flex-fuel (unleaded or E85) versions. Now, more than half of the city's and utility department's fleets, which use a combined 2.4 million gallons of fuel annually, operate on alternative energy. As a result, the city estimates it has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 4 million pounds and its particulate matter emissions by 1,600 pounds since 2003.

About E85 fuel

E85 is a blend of 85 percent denatured ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. In certain areas of the country, higher percentages of gasoline are added to E85 during the winter to ensure that vehicles are able to start at very cold temperatures. E85 cannot be used in a conventional, gasoline-only engine. Vehicles must be specially designed to run on it.

Flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) are designed to run on gasoline or a blend of up to E85. Except for a few engine and fuel system modifications, they are identical to gasoline-only models. FFVs have been produced since the 1980s, and dozens of models are currently available. FFVs experience no loss in performance when operating on E85. However, since a gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline, FFVs typically get about 20 percent-30 percent fewer miles per gallon when fueled with E85.

Fleets considering FFVs must carefully assess the infrastructure necessary to meet their FFV needs. Total cost of ownership; performance, equipment and safety standards; required fueling appliances; and employee training must all be factored into alternative-fuel-oriented fleet programs. Know what fuels are most commonly available in your area, the locations of accessible fueling stations and the availability of FFVs that meet your agency's specifications.

Today, more than 200 major fleets in the U.S. run on biofuels, including the U.S. Postal Service, U.S. military and metropolitan transit systems. Driven by increased sales, hybrid vehicle production is increasing along with the number of FFV manufacturers. In spite of increased production, the startup costs to establish FFV-oriented fleets may prove daunting for many state and local governments. Yet, the political climate is such that policymakers are committed to legislation that decreases dependence on oil imports and reduces greenhouse gas emissions caused by petroleum fuels.

When the Colorado Springs began acquiring flex-fuel vehicles from Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford, only one local fuel distributor, locally based Acorn Petroleum, carried ethanol, so the city contracted with the company to supply the alternative fuel at a specific price and issued fuel cards to drivers to purchase E85 when they needed to fill up. But the stations were not always conveniently located for drivers, and fleet managers could not ensure drivers used the alternative fuel. The city applied for a grant from the Governor's Biofuel Coalition to install an ethanol tank at its central fleet maintenance facility. The $15,000 grant covered about 30 percent of the cost of the pump installation, and the rest was split by the city and Colorado Springs Utilities.

A fuel/fleet management system on fuel dispensers and vehicles restricts drivers from using improper fuel. It also collects data from vehicles' computers, such as fuel mileage, to measure performance and schedule preventive maintenance.

To expand alternative fuel use, city officials are encouraging major vehicle manufacturers to develop more alternative-fuel vehicles. “The direction we've had for the last three to five years is alternative fuels and fuel conservation, and anything we can buy that's an alternative fuel, that's the direction that we need to go,” says Christina Hartzler, fleet acquisitions and disposals manager.

View from the fleet

On the other side of Denver in Fort Collins, Colo., there is a mandate to “buy…vehicles that use alternative fuels, including electric, compressed natural gas (when feasible) and propane cars.” However, Fort Collins has found that balancing environmental concerns and departmental needs requires an awareness of the many influencing variables that contribute to the fleet's ultimate composition and operational experience. These include:

  • Interaction with directing entities

    Discussions with directing bodies come in many forms and are best viewed as an opportunity to educate decision-makers and their constituents.

  • Communication with other organizations

    Whether sustainability committees or clean air groups, any fleet operation has to deal with groups pursuing environmental agendas at odds with functional or fiscal reality. The best way to get cooperation instead of confrontation is to become a part of the group.

  • Investigation and evaluation of alternatives

    Information on the latest save-the-world fuel-treatment gadget can be relevant, interesting and can challenge one's comfortable, business-as-usual approach to procurement. But the economics must be of benefit, which means one must understand how long it will take to see a payback of the additional cost.

  • Presentation of solutions to end-users

    It's a job that requires persuasion. In Fort Collins, part of the job is to pull together information to help the city's Equipment Review Board process equipment requests. Is the old equipment really ready for replacement? Does the department need the type vehicle they ask for? Has the requesting department remained focused on the driving operational factors that guide the purchasing decision? Persuasion is key: There is no magic way to make a fleet more fuel-efficient and less of an environmental burden.