Natural Gas – Conversions, Vehicles and Technology

PG&E Goes for the Green

July 2012, Green Fleet Magazine - Feature

by Chris Wolski - Also by this author

PG&E operates more than 20 Chevrolet Volts. To support these vehicles, it has installed about 50 new electric-vehicle charging stations at different locations.
PG&E operates more than 20 Chevrolet Volts. To support these vehicles, it has installed about 50 new electric-vehicle charging stations at different locations.

When San Francisco-based energy provider Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) began greening its fleet, the one conversation that Director of Transportation Dave Meisel and his colleagues didn’t have was how to green the fleet.
Instead, the discussion was about how alternative technology would fit the needs of the fleet. “We don’t ever have conversations about ‘greening’ the fleet. Instead, we talk about how to do business. That’s probably the biggest difference with our approach,” Meisel said.

The approach is also unique in that the price of a specific piece of technology is initially secondary to how it will help PG&E serve its customers. If the technology makes sense, Meisel looks at the cost “and if it will cost us or save us money.” The next step is evaluating the technology’s impact on fleet safety.

Finally, the technology’s impact on the environment is considered. “Then, we match the technology with the business need,” Meisel said. “We have not found one fuel that fits the entire fleet — a blended approach is a must.”
Meisel doesn’t work in a vacuum when spec’ing a new vehicle. For instance, the fleet is currently in the process of redesigning its crew cabs. Meisel looked to his supervisors and operators for input on the new design.

Outfitting the Fleet
The result of this analytical, business-oriented approach is a highly diverse fleet of 13,000 vehicles of both conventional and alt-fuel types.

The mixed fleet isn’t surprising, considering PG&E serves customers in one of the most geographically and climatically diverse states in the nation. Its 75,000-square-mile coverage area, which stretches from just north of Los Angeles to the Oregon border, has its drivers contending with sand, water, dust, snow, as well as urban and rural environments.

The fleet consists of more than 156 specs spread across passenger cars; pickups; and light-, medium-, and heavy-duty trucks. The utility also operates a variety of other vehicles from snowmobiles and snow CATs to boats and planes.

Its alt-fuel fleet includes approximately 1,000 compressed natural gas (CNG), 1,500 biodiesel, 150 all-electric, and 500-600 hybrid (standard, plug-in, and range extender) vehicles. The fleet introduced its first CNG vehicles in quantity in 2003. Electric and biodiesel followed about three or four years ago.

While environmental factors are an important consideration, there are times when compromises must be made in order for PG&E to best serve its customers. Case in point is the use of biodiesel in some of its California markets, which was introduced because of the limits of the CNG fueling infrastructure. Though it’s not the ideal fuel from an environmental standpoint, Meisel is philosophic about its use. “It’s not as clean as CNG, but it is more clean than doing nothing,” he said.

Typically, when PG&E introduces a new fleet vehicle, it does so carefully, buying one or two of the vehicles spread to different locations. If those initial tests are successful, fleet will purchase 10-20 of the vehicles eventually purchasing a larger quantity. “That way you find the true cost of operating the vehicle. Sometimes you’ll miss a big benefit and/or a big liability,” Meisel noted.

The one thing Meisel said PG&E never does is “force fit a technology into the fleet. If you do that, you have a high probability of failure,” he noted.

Also influencing selection decisions is the unknown. “The vast majority of the time we work in a known situation; but, occasionally, we are working in the unknown, an emergency situation that requires vehicles are able to work 100 percent of the time. We buy for that emergency situation,” Meisel explained.
Fueling infrastructure is probably one of the biggest influences in whether a vehicle is deployed in a given region.

“Regardless of the fuel type, we spend a great deal of time analyzing the density of the fueling infrastructure. Gasoline and diesel have a 100-year head-start over all the other power sources, none of which are as mature,” Meisel said. “That means you have to be very particular where you deploy a vehicle.”
PG&E hasn’t sat back and expected others to install a fueling infrastructure for the company. It has a network of 34 CNG stations and one liquefied natural gas (LNG) station, most of which are open to the public and serve transit districts, private refuse haulers, school districts, municipalities, air/seaports, and other operators, including tax, package delivery, military, and personal vehicle owners.

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