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.
Hitting a Grand Slam
One of the showcases for Meisel’s approach to evaluating and implementing technology was the recent introduction of PG&E’s new trouble trucks in San Francisco. The 300 diesel bucket trucks have been partially electrified so the bucket, tool circuit, lighting circuit, and heating/air conditioning can run on electricity using a plug-in battery-powered system while the engine is turned off. This is a significant improvement in many ways for the fleet because the old trucks needed to idle eight to 10 hours a day. Of course, PG&E has saved money by reducing idling along with decreasing the harmful particulates from the emissions.
But, more important, the crews have been able to effectively double their available work hours. Because of San Francisco’s strict noise ordinance, non-electrified trucks could only work between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The electrified bucket trucks can work well into the night, because they don’t violate the ordinance.
Customers like the trucks because crews can get the power back on more quickly if there’s an outage late at night, and crews like them because there are no diesel fumes to contend with and, when working with a partner, they can speak at a normal volume, making operations safer. In addition, the trucks have power take-off (PTO) installed.
“The electrified bucket trucks hit all of the criteria — cost, safety, and environment. We hit a grand slam with them,” Meisel said.
PG&E isn’t stopping with partially electrified bucket trucks. It is currently testing an all-electric bucket truck as well. Among its all-electric vehicles are service body, flatbed, and service trucks. PG&E also operates more than 20 Chevrolet Volts. To support these vehicles, PG&E has installed about 50 new electric-vehicle charging stations at different locations, and plans to add more as electric-powered vehicles are added to the fleet.
Managing the Fleet
At first glance, the mix of fuel types would make managing the PG&E fleet complicated — with technology issues causing numerous headaches; however, this isn’t case.
According to Meisel, there is high driver acceptance of the alt-fuel vehicles. “I have drivers who only want to test the new technology — particularly the environmentally friendly vehicles,” he said.
Likewise, the mechanics “love learning the new technology,” Meisel said.
He noted that PG&E has not experienced any difficulty in finding qualified mechanics for its fleet.
“We’re incredibly selective, requiring candidates undergo a technical interview with the lead technical supervisor, lead maintenance supervisor, and other senior maintenance personnel. If the candidate makes it through that interview process they’ll fit in fine,” Meisel said.
As new technology is introduced, the maintenance staff needs additional training. For instance, with the electrified bucket trucks, the mechanics had to receive high-voltage training.
This is part of the company’s PowerPathway Program, designed to prepare mechanics to safely repair and maintain new electric and hybrid vehicles being introduced to the fleet.
The program uses a train-the-trainer approach. PG&E master mechanics trained instructors at several community colleges, who, in turn, trained approximately 225 PG&E fleet mechanics. The partnership with community college instructors has long-term benefits, taking their skill and new knowledge back to the communities PG&E serves. Instructors will be using the techniques they’ve learned from teaching the fleet mechanics and sharing them with their own students at local community colleges — transmitting state-of-the-art skills that could be used to begin careers in both fleet and consumer garages.
Another benefit for drivers/operators and mechanics is that much of the new technology being converted to alternative energy sources works similarly to what they replaced and is familiar to PG&E fleet personnel. For instance, the electrified bucket trucks are operated exactly the same way as the diesel-powered versions — the power source is the only thing that changed.
The big management question remains with lifecycling. “It’s something we’re looking at now,” Meisel admitted. “With our Volts, for example, we could turn them in after three years or keep them for six to seven years. With alt-fuel vehicles, they’re in such good shape after being used for a few years [it’s tempting just to hold on to them].”
He particularly sees this with the fleet’s trucks. “It’s not uncommon for Class 1 and Class 2 CNG and electric trucks to have useful lives in excess of 150 percent of our normal units when used in our applications,” Meisel observed.
Going hand-in-glove with lifecycling is another important issue for fleet managers who have introduced green technology to their fleets — resale value. And, for Meisel, this is something he expects to learn about very soon.
“The part we don’t know yet is the residual value of the green technology; however, our vehicles are getting to an age when we expect to be putting them on the market,” Meisel said.
Measuring the Benefits of Alt-fuel
While the bottom line can sometimes trump the green line, Meisel noted that PG&E doesn’t view green fleet technology one-dimensionally. “That’s why we’re always looking at more technologies,” he said.
Looking at the numbers is impressive from both a business and environmental perspective.
For instance, the combined use of CNG in PG&E’s vehicle fleet, along with the fleets of its customers, avoided the use of more than 17.6 million gallons of gasoline in 2011. This translates into a reduction of 780 tons of NOx, 60 tons of particulate matter, and nearly 58,220 tons of CO2 on a well-to-wheel basis, according to PG&E’s website.
And, that’s just for CNG. Electric-powered vehicles also promise impressive savings, according to Meisel.
“When you look at gasoline, if you’re getting 15 mpg for a truck at $4 per gallon, that means it costs between 26 cents and 27 cents per mile to operate. The electric option for the same vehicle operates at 7 cents per mile per gallon equivalent (MPGe),” he said.
Altogether, Meisel said, in a well-managed application where extended range electric vehicles replace standard internal combustion engines, PG&E has seen as much as a 66-percent reduction in gasoline consumption.
While the reality of PG&E’s business environment may necessitate continuing with a mixed alt-fuel fleet, Meisel believes he has found a technology that could fit a far greater number of situations. “We’ve been doing a lot of work on extended range electric — the same technology that’s used in the Volt — and believe that it has the potential to be the best of all worlds,” he said.
In fact, PG&E is among the first customers of VIA Motors, which has developed an extended-range electric pickup truck. PG&E is working with VIA and other companies like EVI and ALTe to deliver extended-range electric vehicles into Class 6 category of vehicles.
Whatever the future holds, what is certain is that PG&E’s fleet will continue to adapt to the ever-evolving alt-fuel landscape by keeping an eye on finding a technology that best meets the needs of its fleet and its customers.
VIA Opens Door to Extended-Range Electric Trucks
For truck fleets looking for a viable, cutting-edge alternative-fuel option, the VIA extended-range electric vehicle (e-REV) might be the answer. California’s PG&E is among the first major fleets that have committed to the start-up automaker’s e-REV.
Like the Chevrolet Volt, the VIA e-REV can drive up to 40 miles on batteries and then switches automatically to a gasoline-powered engine for an additional 300 miles.
The e-REV’s batteries can be charged using a standard 110 volt or 220 volt outlet, and can be refueled using conventional gasoline at any public station.
As an added benefit, the e-REV work truck comes with an onboard generator that can be used in place of a tow-behind generator to power the worksite or provide emergency power.
The e-REV powertrain includes a 402 hp electric motor, a 4.3L V-6 combustion engine, a 201 hp electric generator, and a 1,500-lb. payload capacity. The current pickup truck models are available in standard, extended cab, and crew cab models.
In addition, VIA expects to offer SUVs and vans in the future.