Are alternative fuels in the future for Vail?
VAIL — “Zero” — that was the recurring message from the makers of the Proterra all-electric bus, which rolled through Vail on a demonstration tour on Oct. 1
The bus emits zero emissions, uses zero fossil fuels, makes (almost) no noise and charges enough for about an hour of driving within a few minutes at a specialized “rapid charge” port.
The bus is among several alternative fuel options that the town of Vail is considering when the town replaces its buses in a couple years. Currently, all the in-town buses are hybrid diesel-electric buses, but when it is time for the town to replace about 15 buses between 2016 and 2018, they may consider even newer, greener technology.
When the town replaced part of its 32-bus diesel fleet with 10 hybrids in the late 2000s, the technology was relatively new. The buses are considerably quieter and put out less emissions than the older all-diesel models, and they run on a 2 percent mixture of biodiesel (fuel made from vegetable oils and animal fats). The buses are fuel-efficient because they absorb energy in a battery during braking and allow the engine to operate more often at its peak efficiency.
Today, more options are available for municipal transit, including electric buses, which a handful of communities around the U.S. have adopted, and compressed natural gas, which is becoming increasingly widely used both around the country and the world.
“(Mayor) Andy Daly asked us to looked into this, so we’ve looked into all the alternative fuels available and narrowed it down to things that were viable for Vail,” said Todd Scholl, the town’s fleet manager. “We do try to be on the leading edge with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, so if financially (there were an alternative fuel that) makes sense, we would move forward with it.”
Vail has a town-wide goal to reduce energy emissions by 20 percent by 2020 based on 2006 numbers. The transit system is one of the biggest ways to reach that goal, Scholl said.
“Transit is a huge part of our fuel consumption, so anything we can do to reduce that would be great,” said Scholl, adding that Vail tries to be a leader in using green technologies. “We always try to offer more than what’s just acceptable — a premier experience.”
Vail enlisted the help of energy consultant Dan Richardson of SGM in Carbondale. Richardson, who helped the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority switch 20 percent of its fleet to compressed natural gas buses, laid out Vail’s options. In a recent presentation to the Vail Town Council, he showed the projected rising cost of diesel fuel, the increasing numbers of municipalities using compressed natural gas, the forecast in technology improvements for electric buses, as well as costs of setting up a compressed natural gas or electric system.
“CNG and electricity are the most price-stable fuels, but the upfront cost is high,” he said. “Diesel is reliable technology, but it’s not good for air and the fuel prices fluctuate.”
The risk of going green
So far the town is just exploring its options. While the Town Council was eager to be environmentally friendly and save on fuel costs, Richardson also pointed out some major barriers for some alternative fuels.
Compressed natural gas is a fossil fuel product that is said to generate less air pollutant and greenhouse gases, according to some studies. So far, price of the fuel has proven cheaper and less volatile than that of diesel. The downside is that the gas needs to be compressed to a high pressure, and special facilities and fueling equipment are needed to run a CNG bus fleet.
“You still have to extract it out of the ground, and it’s relatively carbon intensive, so it’s not renewable energy, but it is diversifying your sources,” Richardson said.
However, with CNG comes costly infrastructure — the gas canisters, new fueling stations, a space that can safely house the fuels and employees to upkeep everything. RFTA has been happy with its compressed natural gas buses so far, but the agency also had a considerable amount of federal grant money to help get the project underway.
All-electric might be the wave of the future, but the town was concerned both with the cost (estimated at $900,000 per bus), and the reliability of the technology. Proterra, with its rapid-charge technology, has been around for less than a decade.
“I think that (electric) technology is ready today for the right routes,” Richardson said. “It wouldn’t work for ECO Transit on a regional route, but it would work for smaller routes. It’s important to add that there is added risk for municipalities. If we want to buy an electric vehicle and it doesn’t work well, it only affects you, but municipalities need things to work. You can’t just sell everything five years from now if it’s not working.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.
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