“Green, for lack of a better word, is good,” said Gordon Gekko famously in the movie Wall Street. Wait, he said greed? My bad. I must be confusing that quote with today’s general media consensus that all things green are good. Someone builds a wind farm, call the media! And the resulting article makes us feel all warm and fuzzy. However, in the fleet world, and in this business-to-business publication that covers it, green is always tempered by the Gordon Gekko kind of green. Financial implications are a major factor in any fleet decision-making process — any green solution has to be sustainable for the company.
And that’s why GO Riteway, a ground transportation company based in Milwaukee, makes an interesting test case for greening the fleet in the real world. The company has many different types of fleet vehicles (school buses, motor coaches, shuttle coaches, limo coaches, limousines, executive sedans and vans) for many different applications. Because one solution will not work across the entire fleet, Jason Ebert, fleet and facilities coordinator, has gone through a hands-on vetting of quite a few alternative-fuel and alternative-powered vehicles. He speaks from experience on the technology, the operation and the ROI.
Hybrid Shuttle Buses
In September 2010, the company acquired two hybrid “mini coaches” for use at the Kohl’s department store corporate campus. The 21-passenger shuttle buses sit on General Motors’ 4500 chassis with 6.0L gas engines and have a hybrid system made by Variable Torque Motors in conjunction with Cummins Crosspoint.
GO Riteway bought the mini coaches slightly used from a company that had originally purchased them through a Wisconsin Clean Cities grant. Because they were used, however, GO Riteway could not take advantage of any grant opportunities, and on top of that the vans only had 12,000 miles on them, so there was not much of a pricing advantage compared to buying new. The added hybrid technology doubled the cost of the vehicles. The fuel economy “is not as much as we expected, but there is improvement,” Ebert says, adding that “we’re probably not going to see a return on investment on the hybrid units.”
But the vehicles still make sense in light of GO Riteway’s overall environmental vision, as well as Kohl’s. “Kohl’s is looking for partners in green technology from their suppliers,” according to Ebert, saying that the company specifically requested some type of hybrid technology in its corporate shuttle buses, which are marked as hybrids with “Kohl’s Cares” logos.
Ebert expects a five-to-seven year lifespan on the mini coaches, or 100,000 to 150,000 miles. He says that the lifespans of the lighter van chassis are hindered by weather-related issues in Wisconsin such as road salt body damage.
Hybrid School Buses (and How Grants Change the Equation)
GO Riteway also purchased four new Thomas Built school buses with Eaton Corp. hybrid systems and Freightliner Custom Chassis. The company paid $85,000 each for the buses and $75,000 for each hybrid unit. This time, however, the company got a Wisconsin Clean Cities grant — which covered the entire cost of the hybrid conversions.
Ebert says the grants process is not prohibitive, as long as fleets follow Clean Cities’ guidelines, checklists and documentation requirements. The wait for funds is usually 30 to 60 days after submitting the application. After acquiring the vehicles, the fleet is required to report on a regular basis on mileage, fuel economy and operational aspects.
“I hate putting exact percentages, but we’re seeing a 10% to 20% increase in fuel economy on those buses,” Ebert says, noting that savings can vary greatly by route and driver. Ebert has seen even greater increases for his drivers who “make a game of it” by driving in a way that keeps the electric motor on as long as possible before the diesel engine kicks in.
In terms of driver acceptance, Ebert says drivers like how the hybrid school buses ride and they like the air brakes, though some have mentioned that they are a little slower from a dead stop than conventional diesel models.
GO Riteway is expecting 12 more Thomas Built hybrid school buses to be delivered in April, along with two International school buses with Eaton hybrid systems that will come in the summer.
All-electric School Buses
Ebert says he has investigated the new all-electric school bus — the Newton e-trans — just coming on the market, though with its non-standard configuration he has concerns about whether it meets Wisconsin’s state statutes for school bus regulations.
CNG or Propane Vans?
In 2010, GO Riteway acquired a ground transportation company, one that had begun the process of switching some vans to propane autogas through grants from Wisconsin Clean Cities.
When the company changed hands, Ebert picked up the ball and investigated CNG (compressed natural gas) as well. He decided CNG wasn’t a fit for his fleet. “In talking to other people in the industry, we found that CNG seemed to be a little heavier on repairs and maintenance; a lot of that has to do with the pressurization of the system compared to propane,” he says. Another issue was the reduced storage created by the larger fuel tank needed to produce a similar range.
The company went with propane. Ebert bought 21 used Ford E-350 passenger vans and retrofitted them with ROUSH CleanTech propane autogas systems. The conversion kits ran about $11,000 and were completely covered by a Clean Cities grant.
On the conversion, the factory-installed gas tanks are simply swapped for propane tanks. The new tank holds 35 gallons with room for 27 gallons of propane; the remaining 20% is left for the gas to expand. “Looking at our shuttles, you wouldn’t know they use propane instead of gas,” he says. Ebert claims a range of 270 to 300 miles per propane tank compared to 350 miles on standard gas.
The kit installation process started with a visit from ROUSH technicians, who took one full day to train GO Riteway’s mechanics. ROUSH returned the following day to observe an installation, and after that, the mechanics were on their own. They now install each kit in less than six hours and are certified to do warranty work on the ROUSH system.
Installing the Infrastructure
As well, Ebert took on the task of installing the propane fueling station. While he had choices of national suppliers for his propane, he went with a local vendor, Boehlke Bottled Gas. Ebert says Boehlke beat the big guys on price by a couple cents per gallon, but the real benefit was how Boehlke helped him through the permitting process and worked with the contractor and electrician on site. While they had to scrap their original site for parking considerations, the installation took less than four months. The project cost about $90,000, and was again completely funded through a Clean Cities grant.
With the grants, the return on investment is almost immediate, Ebert says, along with savings moving forward: Ebert pays less than $2 per gallon for propane, as opposed to about $3.60 for gas as of this writing. Ebert also points out further savings by elongating oil change intervals (from 5,000 to 7,000 miles) as a result of burning a cleaner fuel. “That ROI adds up in a hurry, especially when we’re putting around 100,000 miles on each vehicle a year,” he says, expecting a 500,000-mile lifespan.
Ebert is looking to add nine more propane-powered shuttles with extended-range tanks to allow shuttle service from Milwaukee to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, as well as another propane mini coach. He’s also considering a propane-powered school bus and a commercial bus.
There is a question as to whether the Clean Cities grant funds are still available. However, “We’ll be investing pretty heavily in propane, regardless if there are any grants or not,” Ebert says, because the ROI is still favorable. “Without the grant funding on the conversions or the fueling infrastructure, we still would have gotten an ROI in about three years,” he says.
Ethanol, Biodiesel and Good Ol’ Gas
Ebert says ethanol is not part of the conversation, nor is biodiesel at this point. Biodiesel is not readily available in his area, and he does not want to risk mixing percentage blends in the same vehicle as it could have mechanical consequences, he says.
However, Ebert is in the process of switching some of his smaller school buses to traditional gas, due to the added cost of the technology on new diesel trucks to meet the 2010 emissions standards. Not only is the company saving about $10,000 on the buses’ initial cost, he hasn’t seen a marked difference in fuel savings from gas compared to diesel, and he anticipates a comparable lifespan on the new gas engines.
The change to gas from diesel has been transparent to the drivers. For vehicles with heavier chassis, he says he’ll stick with diesel.
For more articles on how to green your fleet within your budget, see “The Green Fleet Price Tag,” “EVs Meet the Real World” and “Going Green in a Tough Economy.”