Alternative fuel vehicles find more use among fleets

MnDOT biodiesel trucks
New MnDOT maintenance and snow plow trucks are powered with biodiesel, a fuel that includes 5 percent of its volume derived from corn, soybeans or animal fats. That blend will increase to 10 percent by 2012 and to 20 percent by 2015.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Firing up a large, hybrid delivery truck, Ken Norton, distribution manager for Coca-Cola in the Twin Cities, said what isn't heard in the familiar growl of the diesel engine is the electricity coursing through the propulsion system at the same time.

"This unit pulls from both propulsion systems, meaning the electric and the diesel, to reduce the amount of emissions and also reduce the amount of fuel being used out of the diesel motor," Norton said.

The result, Norton said, is a truck that gets upwards of 11 miles per gallon compared to seven miles per gallon from a diesel-only engine.

Coca-Cola started using alternative fuel vehicles in 2001. It has more than 250 fleet vehicles in the Twin Cities, and 10 of them are the hybrid-electric delivery trucks, along with a batch of smaller hybrid cars. The company's goal is to put more than 500 hybrid trucks on the road in North America by the end of the year.

Added to what's happening elsewhere, there are now tens of thousands of alternative fuel vehicles in company fleets, same as in the public sector.

Minnesota's largest public sector fleet, about 11,000 vehicles, is operated by the state's Department of Transportation.

Five years ago, Minnesota's state agencies were ordered to reduce gasoline use. The goal is to cut consumption by 25 percent this year, and 50 percent by next year. Fleet managers are relying mainly on E85 fuel -- a blend of 85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline -- and biodiesel as alternative fuels.

Hybrid electric truck
Coca-Cola says the company goal is to put 500 hybrid electric trucks, like this one in the Twin Cities, on the road across North America by the end of this year. The trucks run on diesel and electric power, cost $40,000 more than conventional diesel powered trucks, and have a life expectancy of 15 years.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Ethanol's attraction as an alternative fuel, critics say, is offset by the environmental effects of raising the corn needed to produce it. Also, ethanol lacks gasoline's punch and vehicles need to burn more of it to produce the same power.

Bob Ellingsworth, who manages the MnDOT fleet, said he expects newer engines will do better.

"Part of that had to do with the fact we took a standard gasoline engine and adapted it for E85, where now the auto manufacturers are designing engines to burn ethanol and E85," he said.

There are subsidies for nearly every alternative to gasoline -- a 45-cents-a-gallon credit for ethanol, 50 cents for biodiesel -- to name a couple. The subsidy for gasoline, it's fair to note, includes billions in tax breaks for companies extracting crude oil.

Even with incentives, don't look for alternative fuels to take a big bite out of gasoline or diesel consumption in this country anytime soon.

E85 compatible
This new 2010 Ford F150 pickup truck, owned by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is a flex fuel vehicle, meaning it can run on gasoline or E85, the 85 percent/15 percent ethanol blend.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

One reason is the vast investment in gasoline infrastructure for refineries, pipelines and stations to make, transport and sell the product. Politically, there's huge momentum behind keeping crude oil flowing.

Bill Grant of the Izaak Walton League said that includes the momentum behind an extremely controversial crude oil source, the oil sands in Canada.

Billions of barrels of crude oil are bound up in massive sand formations in Alberta. Grant and other critics say extraction of the oil harms the environment.

Grant said there are proposals to distribute crude from the oil sands throughout the United States.

"I think it will, unless public policy decisions rule otherwise, slowly take over our crude oil supply in this country," Grant said.

U. S. and Minnesota gasoline use has declined because of the recession, higher vehicle mileage standards, and in part because of expanding use of alternative fuels.

Fleets are part of the change, but a relatively small part. Fleet vehicles are only a single digit percent of all the vehicles on the road in this country.

However, purchases of alternative fuel vehicles by fleet owners create a market for manufacturers that may one day expand to include more individual buyers.

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