Hybrids Aid Fleet 'Greening'

While fleets seeking to go green seldom have a clear path to follow, hybrids offer one of the easiest ways to achieve multiple "green" objectives — such as lower emissions and reduced petroleum consumption — with just one vehicle type.

"Many fleets today are establishing a 'green presence' and their solutions are all over the map, from hybrids to ethanol and biodiesel," Brian McVeigh, general manager of General Motor's fleet & commercial division, told FleetOwner. "Because at the end of the day, there's still a significant premium to be paid for hybrids, so that cost has to be managed."

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is pursuing hybrids as part of its alternative fuel vehicle strategy within the federal fleet, recently receiving the first of 55 2007-model GM Saturn Aura Green Line hybrid sedans this week. GSA purchased more than 24,000 alternative fueled vehicles (AFVs) for federal operations this year alone, with a total of over 140,000 AFVs and hybrids purchased since 1991, according to GSA Administrator Lurita Doan.

"It's part of our effort to provide a selection of the latest model hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles to the federal community," Doan noted. "We're committed to providing the best fleet services in the business at the lowest possible cost, a formula that will yield major dividends for our customers, our citizens and our environment."

Dave DuVal, quality control supervisor for Fairfax County, VA, told FleetOwner that while the fuel savings generated by hybrid vehicles don't yet help pay for their higher sticker price, their ability to both save on fuel and reduce emissions simultaneously make meeting "green fleet" efforts easier.

"While I doubt we'll ever recover their total cost, I still thing hybrids are worthwhile — especially for our fleet — because they save on our cost of fuel and help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants," DuVal said. "There's a high level of interest within the county's government to reduce emissions and our use of petroleum and hybrids give us one of the simplest means to achieve that."

He noted that the Fairfax County fleet operates 92 hybrids, made up of 56 Toyota Prius and 36 Ford Escape models, which are considered general-purpose vehicles. Based on 2004 data, Duval said the Prius hybrids averaged 43.8 mpg, while comparable gasoline-only vehicles achieved 22.8 mpg.

However, new plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV) designs now coming to the market may significantly alter the cost-recovery equation in the future, Fairfax County's DuVal said.

Fairfax County is currently testing a Prius retrofitted with an extra lithium-ion battery that can be recharged by plugging it in at night — allowing the vehicle to travel between 20 to 30 miles on electricity alone before the gasoline engine needs to kick in. DuVal also found that if the plug-in is driven like a normal hybrid and isn't recharged regularly, the increase in fuel mileage is minimal — only climbing to 52 mpg. However, if the plug-in is recharged and driven more conservatively, it can achieve 75 to 100 mpg.

"That adds a very interesting piece to the hybrid puzzle," DuVal said. "Another potential advantage here are the new batteries we are using. Currently, we can only discharge a hybrid's batteries to 20% to 30% before the gasoline engine engages. The new PHEV batteries we have can be discharged down to 5%, meaning we can run longer and farther on electricity alone. That can really make a difference to a hybrid's capability."

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