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Negotiating the Alt-Power Jungle

November 15, 2010

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It's been seven short years since George W. Bush announced his $1.2 billion hydrogen initiative, and now we're finally ready for ... electric vehicles. With all the promise of hydrogen back then, you would've thought all vehicles would be spewing water from their exhausts by now.

There were many reasons to bet against hydrogen as a near-term solution, but the fact that we're gung-ho for electric has as much or more to do with where and how the government swings its bat. At the AltCar Expo in Santa Monica, Calif., in October, an engineer on a major OEM hydrogen project lamented that, if the hydrogen industry had the same injection of cash that was afforded the ethanol industry, we'd be a lot closer to market-ready hydrogen-powered cars.

I pondered this as I walked back to the parking structure outside City Hall, which still had three parking spaces dedicated to the older, government-funded electric-vehicle charging stations, dinosaurs of the first electric-vehicle era.

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Government money continues to subsidize the alt-fuel, alt-power industry. It's the necessary trigger to start weaning us off foreign oil. At least now the products are viable and ready for market en masse, and an infrastructure is being built to support them.

But depending on which legislation is in place, the subsidy rug could be yanked, or at least shifted, at any time. Federal tax credits for CNG and LNG (compressed and liquid natural gas) as well as LPG (propane autogas) expire at the end of this year. Much of that money would be replaced if Senate Bill 3815, "Promoting Natural Gas and Electric Vehicles Act of 2010," passes, which also provides subsidies for electric vehicles and infrastructure. Yet propane autogas - domestically produced and widely available - is not included in the bill at present. Where does that leave fleets that are looking to invest in, for instance, Roush CleanTech's advanced liquid propane injection fuel system for Ford trucks?

Businesses cannot be beholden to the whims of any legislative body when budgeting for fleet and preparing for the future. This is especially problematic for small fleets, which are not in a position to subsidize this test market.

At this point, small fleets should focus on what they can control. They could borrow a page from the playbook of Catherine Tillman, who runs the fleet and travel programs at Abbott Labs in Chicago. She was a keynote speaker at the Green Fleet Conference in San Diego in October, where she told attendees that the big pharma "has no active strategy to implement alt-fuels into its fleet."

That may seem odd for a keynote speaker at a conference on how to green your fleet. And yet, Abbott has been very proactive in reducing its carbon footprint. The company has restricted 4x4 SUVs to drivers in winter states, has moved from six- to four-cylinder SUVs and assessed a per-mile personal use charge for drivers who choose SUVs or minivans. Those moves are paying big dividends in fuel (and greenhouse gas) savings. Abbott further tips the scale by buying carbon credits, which made Abbott the first large company to go carbon neutral with its U.S. fleet in July 2007.

Not very sexy, is it? Downsizing and a tighter managing of the fleet won't usually make for a press release. But these initiatives work, they pay dividends and they're free from the whims of entities no fleet can control.

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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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