State Goes for Green; Will Convert Fleet to Natural Gas, Propane

Trading in Virginia’s gas-guzzling fleet of trucks and cars for greener models will help improve the state’s air quality, put Virginians to work and even save tax dollars, Gov. Bob McDonnell says.

“We think Virginia is doing its part by converting from gasoline that comes in part from foreign countries to either natural gas or electricity or propane or hydrogen or some other fuel will show that we’re serious about American energy independence,” McDonnell said Tuesday.

The state plans to vastly expand its use of alternative fuels, such as propane and natural gas, to power its 10,000-vehicle fleet and could seek proposals from suppliers and car manufacturers as early as this month. The proposals will help the state determine the cost of converting many of its trucks and cars to run on a fuel other than petroleum.

Lawmakers threw their support behind converting the fleet during this past General Assembly session and also passed a bill that is expected to accelerate the use of electric vehicles by Virginia drivers.

And Tuesday, McDonnell signed an executive order to begin this conversion process, which could begin within the year.

Relying more on alternative fuels is part of McDonnell’s effort to make Virginia the energy capital of the East Coast. Although McDonnell advocates for offshore oil drilling, he also supports offshore wind farms as well as the expansion of nuclear power and research into energy produced by burning wood waste, manure and garbage, known as biomass.

About 1,200 state vehicles run on E-85, which is ethanol blended with gasoline, and a handful of diesel trucks the Virginia Department of Transportation operates run on biodiesel, said Mike Bisogno, fleet manager for the state Department of General Services.

The department operates 4,000 vehicles that various state agencies use. It spent $4.2 million on fuel during the past year — an extra $33,000 of that was spent to buy more than 12,000 gallons of E-85 fuel, according to the state Department of General Services.

But McDonnell said he wants state trucks and cars to run on compressed natural gas and propane gas — fuels that are produced in the United States and even in Virginia — in addition to E-85 capable cars, often referred to as flex-fuel cars.

McDonnell said not all state vehicles will be converted, because some vehicles, like state police cars, may not be a good fit for alternative fuels.

He acknowledged that the state would incur upfront costs for the vehicles and tanks as well as employee training, but the petroleum fuel savings will more than pay for the program.

The cost to buy vehicles that can run on alternative fuels varies. Some vehicles could be converted to run on alternative fuels, such as propane, for about $10,000.

A new electric Ford Focus would cost $20,000 to $30,000 — more than a standard gas-fueled Focus, which can cost about $16,000, according to a Richmond Ford dealer who attended the executive order signing Tuesday.

Bisogno said there is no price difference between state vehicles that run on E-85 fuel and their petroleum-fueled counterparts.

Green movement in high gear
Federal law requires all states to buy cars and light pickup trucks for their fleets that can run on alternative fuels. Many states buy flex-fuel cars to meet the federal requirement, but they don’t have to buy E-85, said Patrick O’Connor, legislative counsel for the NAFA Fleet Management Association. The association represents fleet managers for utility companies, corporations plus local and state governments.

Some states, like Utah and Florida, are using fuels like natural gas to run heavy-duty vehicles, like dump trucks or buses, O’Connor said.

Delegate Danny Marshall, R-Danville, said he wanted to use natural gas and methane gas, which are produced in the southwest corner of the state.

“It’s a win that the energy is created here, a win that the jobs are going to be created here. And the other win is that we are not sending our money to the Middle East,” Marshall said. “I just think it makes a lot of sense.”

Marshall sponsored a bill calling for the administration to convert the fleet, the go-ahead that McDonnell needed to move ahead.

Air pollution controls in Northern Virginia also prompted lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow retailers, like Kmart and Walmart, to offer charging stations for electric car drivers. McDonnell also ceremonially signed this bill into law Tuesday.

Until now, only public utility companies could sell electricity and a law change was needed to allow the retail charging stations, said Delegate David Bulova, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the bill.

He said he wants to encourage more drivers to buy electric vehicles because they can run on energy produced in Virginia and create less pollution than gas-powered vehicles — a key advantage for Northern Virginia, which does not meet air quality standards, Bulova said.

“None of this is possible, if the infrastructure doesn’t exist to make electric vehicles practical and convenient,” he said.

McDonnell said he hopes the state’s investment in these new technologies will create the infrastructure needed to serve localities and Virginia motorists.



This article was first published by WY Daily.

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