Fleet Managers Need to Be Able to Choose ‘The Right Fuel for the Job’
Special to Fleets & Fuels by Darren Engle,
director of governmental relations with Blue Star Gas
Diversification is just smart business, but for a long time fleet managers and even fuel providers were only thinking in terms of a one alternative fuel for their entire fleet. Fortunately, the idea that fleet managers need to select one alternative fuel to meet all their needs is beginning to fade.
A trend of alternative fuel diversification has emerged over the past few years among the nation’s larger corporate fleets, including major package delivery companies FedEx and UPS. While the initial reasons for considering alternative fuels largely remain the same; finding the best combination of overall cost, possible incentives, and efficiency gains, additional considerations are helping to push the diversification of alternative fuels.
Often, the best case for alternative fuels is made on the point of fuel cost savings, but cost savings aren’t the only benefit. Fleet managers, and even emergency service providers, are beginning to realize that using an alt fuel can keep them operational when fleets running on traditional fuels are struggling.
Protection From Changing Market Conditions
Alternative fuel fleets in the southeast were protected when a leak in a pipeline through Alabama followed by another accident two months later, caused a higher fuel prices and shortage of gasoline in the Southeastern U.S. this past fall. Fuel diversification can help fleets insulate themselves against these types of shortages and price spikes.
The threat of similar or even larger events often prompt law enforcement fleets to consider alternative fuels. Many police departments across the country have experimented with electric vehicles for non-patrol functions and found propane autogas bi-fuel systems to be best choice for patrol vehicles. This multi-fuel approach both saves money and insulates the fleet from threats to price or supply.
Fleet Managers Often Want to Try Before They Buy
Test projects are common among fleet managers considering alternative fuel options. Most test projects operate a limited number of alt fuel vehicles alongside the traditional fuel fleet for 6 to 12 months, then compare the results. Some larger fleets are testing multiple fuels in multiple environments on much longer timelines.
UPS has spent 10 years testing and deploying various alt fuel strategies matched to unique conditions of each service area according to their website. Through what the company calls their ‘rolling laboratory,’ they’ve uncovered the best use cases for each alt fuel for their business. The company has tested propane autogas, electric/hydraulic hybrids, electrically assisted tri-cycles, electric vehicles, LNG and CNG, ethanol, and bio methane to arrive at some conclusions about what fuels work best in different situations.
Learning by Doing
For example, UPS now knows that electric vehicles are the best option for city center trips less than 60 miles, while propane autogas is the best option for rural routes of 100+ miles. These use case insights are not only valuable to UPS, but provide other fleets a reliable roadmap, based on more than 1 billion miles of actual driving, that demonstrates the value of fuel diversification based on task.
As alt fuel refueling networks continue to grow, fleets won’t be tethered to on-site refueling stations or infrastructure.
The need to commit extra resources to meeting electrical requirements for recharging vehicles or for CNG fueling stations, or installing large fuel tanks on-site might be a barrier to using multiple fuels. But the continued development of alternative fuel corridors in the US is changing that.
The Federal Highway Administration has designated the nation’s first alternative fuel corridors, which is the first step to establishing a national network of fueling and charging infrastructure.
This shift from private to public infrastructure for various alternative fuels is a huge opportunity that takes alt fuel diversification from the realm of huge national fleets such as UPS and makes it a real possibility for small and mid-sized fleets of regional or local service areas.
The Future State
As the alt fuel landscape continues to grow and evolve, a few basic points are becoming more self-evident:
- public infrastructure development is at the heart of this effort, and without it, scaling up alt fuel use will not only be challenging and many decades away;
- fuel diversification means manageable fluctuations in availability and price; and
- governments should continue incentivizing all alt fuels to encourage diversification and continued use case testing.
In 2017, it’s possible that we will see more regional fleets empowered to experiment with alt fuel diversification in their fleet. We’ve seen time and again, when fleet managers can select the right fuel for the job – the entire green fleet industry benefits.
Darren Engle is director of governmental relations with Blue Star Gas, one of the West Coast’s largest propane distributors, and lobbies for propane autogas and other alternative fuels throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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Source: Blue Star Gas Special to Fleets & Fuels