Weary of high gas prices and spewing harmful emissions into the atmosphere, many companies are searching for alternative ways to conduct fleet business while saving money in the process.

One emerging alternative is the use of electric vehicles for jobs that once required a gasoline or diesel-burning vehicle. The electric vehicle market has grown in recent years from electrified golf carts to low-speed "neighborhood" transporters to panel vans with 16,000-lb. payloads and a range of 150 miles on a charge.

Though the upfront costs of such vehicles are often greater than their conventional counterparts, the overall payback can be rewarding in terms of both dollar savings and environmental impact. In many cases, financial assistance is available to purchase electric vehicles, and an added bonus is minimal maintenance expenses and minor energy vehicle power costs.

Four fleets—two universities, a construction company and a seafood delivery company—reveal the process of adopting different types of electric vehicle technology and how they made it work within budget for their individual applications.

SUNY Buffalo Goes Solar-Electric

Alfred Gilewicz, assistant director, utility operations with the State University of New York at Buffalo, has installed solar panels from Cruise Car Inc. on two of the university's already-existing electric golf carts. By next spring, he plans to have two more solar-electric-powered golf carts on the road. The fleet also operates 10 Global Electric Motorcars (GEM, owned by Chrysler).

University President John B. Simpson recently signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment letter, which, according to Gilewicz, is consistent with the university's environmental efforts to reduce energy consumption and be good stewards of the environment.

"Part of our overall plan is to reduce the use of vehicles on campus, including fleet vehicles in our operations department," says Gilewicz.

Initially, the university engaged its frontline staff to ensure the vehicles would meet their needs. In August 2008, the first trial vehicle equipped with a solar panel was placed on the road using no external power. Gilewicz says there's virtually no maintenance, and using solar power makes them truly climate neutral.

SUNY Buffalo encompasses three campuses about five miles apart from each other. The golf carts are parked in the sun to charge, making them an ideal fit for the university's utility operations staff who run from building to building within each campus all day long.


Cuts the Van Fleet in Half

The decision to go with Cruise Car was economical as well as environmental. According to Gilewicz, the total cost to convert an electric golf cart to solar through Cruise Car is $5,000. The cost of a new service van is between $12,500 and $15,000; add $2,500 per year for fuel and maintenance.

"With the golf carts, there are virtually no maintenance costs and no fuel costs," says Gilewicz. "Our payback on the capital costs to convert a golf cart to solar power is about two years of our annual operating costs for a regular gasoline-powered service van."

In the near future, Gilewicz plans to convert more of the university's golf carts to solar power. For every two carts the fleet places on the road, it will completely eliminate the use of one of its gas-powered service vans.

"From an economics standpoint, it makes perfect business sense and environmental sense," says Gilewicz. "We're no longer burning fossil fuels using gasoline engines; we're recharging off of solar, a renewable energy, and we're doing it a fraction of the cost as we would with a service van. This won't work for everybody, but it does work for groups within our shop. Our shop hopes to reduce our service van fleet by 50 percent within two years."

"Kudos" to Ole Miss

Instead of installing solar panels onto existing electric vehicles, the University of Mississippi fleet in Oxford, Miss., went one step further and purchased complete solar-electric low-speed Cruise Car vehicles from the factory.

The university purchased one four-passenger and four 14-passenger "Kudo" models last summer as part of the same American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment program. The university received an academic discount of $1,000 per vehicle for the 14-passenger version, which normally runs about $17,000 per unit. The four-passenger version costs $8,000 per unit.

The university hosted the first presidential debate, which caused logistical problems with parking, says Pat Stewart, safety and training specialist. The university no longer purchased gasoline-powered vehicles because of its green initiative, so they were looking for vehicles to use for shuttling and moving VIP guests around the campus. Stewart's director had watched a video on solar-powered golf carts and began an Internet search, which led them to Cruise Car.


Adjusting to the Environment

According to Stewart, the vehicles are easy to handle, they blend in well and operate quietly. However, Stewart did experience some minor maintenance issues due to the campus's hilly terrain.

"The vehicles came preprogrammed to the campus speed limit, which is 18 mph, and for a big 14-passenger tram, that was extremely slow and made it difficult to move over hills, no matter how small," says Stewart.

To fix the problem, Stewart had the chief mechanic from Cruise Car come out and alter the vehicles to give them more torque.

The power ratio is about 80 percent electric and 20 percent solar. If the battery hasn't been drained, the vehicles can sit in the sunlight for a couple of hours and recharge. Stewart believes that in the next few years, that technology will only improve so they can utilize more sunlight.

A Major Commitment

Stewart admits that her expectations going in were low.

"This was a major project and it was the first time I had negotiated with that kind of money for a product I didn't know anything about," she says. "Over the course of several months, I got a chance to establish a good working relationship with the people at Cruise Car and they really went above and beyond to get those vehicles to us by Sept. 26."

Stewart believes the fleet should recoup much of the costs that were put into the vehicle in a little more than a year. In the near future, Stewart plans to purchase more of the small two- and four-passenger Kudos for some of the university's other departments.

Contractor ZAPs Pollution

Damon Calegari, equipment manager with Santa Rosa, Calif.-based Ghilotti Construction Co., took delivery of two ZAP (Zero Air Pollution) electric vehicles last November. The units cost $15,000-$16,000.

Calegari says the company is always looking at how to be better stewards of the environment and the community. He realized the company made many of its parts run within five to 10 miles of its facility, so it seemed like a perfect application for an electric vehicle.

The company uses a four-wheel unit to run parts off site and a three-wheel unit to transfer paperwork, time cards and invoices to opposite ends of the company's five-acre facility.

Ghilotti decided to go with ZAP because they were a local dealer and received a lot of positive local press. "We were interested in their product and thought maybe we could help an upstart company with a good idea to help them get on their feet," says Calegari. "We didn't go into this with any expectations; we just had a need and thought it would be beneficial to our operations and the community to utilize these vehicles. So far, they've done what we expected them to do."

Calegari estimates the vehicle's lifecycle at 10-15 years.

The company's branch offices are considering purchasing more electric vehicles upon evaluating the preliminary results. "I think going green is a good long-term strategy. Whether it's paying an immediate benefit right now, that remains to be seen," says Calegari.


Seafood Distributor Clears the Air

Ed Taylor, owner of Down East Seafood in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, N.Y., operates a fleet of 14 trucks. One of those is a medium-duty electric truck by Smith Electric Vehicles of England, which they lent to Taylor several months ago until his truck was finished being built.

Hunts Point is one of New York's food hubs. According to Taylor, there's a very high asthma rate among children on the route between Hunts Point and New York City.

Taylor was made aware of ways to upgrade to cleaner trucks through his congressman's office and the Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College. Taylor, who was also inspired by the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car, went online to do some research and found Smith Trucks.

He asked the Center for Sustainable Energy for a new electric truck instead of grant money to clean up his old trucks. "It seemed like a waste of money to do anything with our older trucks, so we've bought almost all new ones," says Taylor.

He paid more than he would have for a conventional vehicle, but he was able to purchase the truck for 70 percent of the overage.

After the grant was rewritten for Taylor, he flew to England to visit the Smith Company (which opened an office in Glendale, Ariz.) and came away impressed. He also visited another electric vehicle company in Mexico, though at the time Taylor determined that Smith had a much more advanced product on the market.

150 Miles On A Charge

With a range of 150 miles on a charge and a top speed of 50 mph, the truck is ideal for inner-city deliveries. "No one's going to drive 150 miles in a day in the city, so you could have your whole fleet electric," says Taylor. "If everyone had a few electric trucks, it would be a great help from an environmental standpoint. Hopefully we can inspire some larger companies to get a couple of these."

According to Taylor, the electric truck's acceleration is better than some of his diesel trucks. And it's quiet. "I've taken it out on deliveries, and once you're in a truck that doesn't make any noise or cause pollution, you start to take notice of what's around you," says Smith. "The cement mixers you see on the street just pour fumes right out in people's faces. The Smith Electric truck is clean, it's green, it's quick and it doesn't cause any pollution."

So far, Taylor hasn't had any problems with the Smith truck he's currently testing. He plans to purchase more electric trucks over the next few years. He also plans to explore compressed natural gas and other alternative fuels. He prefers electricity, though he admits it's not yet feasible for long-distance trips.

We Won't Get Fooled Again

"I read that fuel is predicted to be as low as $25 per barrel in six months," Taylor muses. "Eventually, [the price of oil] will come back. The point is—do we really want to get fooled again? I'd rather put the money out there and know that we're doing the right thing."  BF