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Calling all cars
Government fleets keep trying to be green

by John Chenery

It's not easy being green - but don't just take Kermit's word for it. Ask Canada's federal fleet managers, drafted as frontline soldiers in the battle to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. So far at least, they're enjoying only limited success.

The Alternative Fuels Act came into force in April 1997 with the aim to make federal fleet procurement a driving force in the campaign to put more alternative transportation fuel (ATF) powered vehicles on Canada's roads and highways. With more than 23,000 on-road vehicles, the government could make a significant contribution to reducing the country's dependence on petroleum-based transportation fuels and lowering emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The Act requires federal departments and agencies to review each new vehicle acquisition to determine whether using an ATF would be cost-effective and operationally feasible.

On the face of it, the Act and the FleetWise program it spawned at National Resources Canada have been a resounding success. Every year, Treasury Board reports that mandated targets for buying ATF vehicles have been met and easily exceeded, including the 1999-2000 fiscal year when federal departments and agencies were required to ensure that 75 percent of viable vehicles were capable of operating on ATF.

Unfortunately, it's not nearly as good as it sounds and the reason is simple: to be viable, an ATF vehicle must be cost-effective and operationally feasible. The Treasury Board's Report on the Application of the Alternative Fuels Act Fiscal Year 1999-2000 shows that of the 2,522 vehicles purchased by the federal government that year, a meagre 331 were cost effective for ATF use and this number dwindled to 141 when operational feasibility was factored in.

Thus the current "success" of the Alternative Fuels Act amounts to this: by buying the undistinguished total of 181 ATF vehicles (around 7 percent of the overall 2,522), federal fleet managers surpassed their target by an impressive 70 percent.

The contradiction is not lost on the men and women who buy and operate the government's vehicles. It was a hot topic during this year's Federal Fleet Managers' Workshop, held in Oakville, Ontario, where participants spoke of their frustrations of trying to go green in a world that seems determined to stay brown.

"It's not because we're not trying," says Serge Joanisse, senior policy analyst with the comptrollership branch of the Treasury Board. "We are making some progress but there are still many issues that limit the viability of ATF vehicles."

One of the main obstacles is price. It can cost up to $8,000 more to buy a factory-produced propane or natural gas vehicle and $1,000 more for one that runs on Ethanol 85 (E85). After-market conversions are cheaper but bring their own reliability and warranty problems. And unlike private sector fleets, government buyers get no tax cuts or other incentives to soften the financial blow.

Equally problematic is the extremely limited supply network for natural gas, propane and ethanol. This leads to what is known in fleet procurement circles as the chicken and egg/Catch 22/dog-chasing-its-tail dilemma: fleet managers find it difficult to invest in ATF vehicles because there aren't enough fuel outlets; fuel companies are reluctant to invest in outlets because there aren't enough ATF vehicles.

Joanisse says that there are now about 120 natural gas stations in Canada - mainly in lower mainland British Columbia, southern and eastern Ontario and metropolitan Quebec - and that number hasn't grown significantly since the introduction of the Alternative Fuels Act.

"The whole idea of the Act was to get more ATF vehicles on the road so that the fuel industry would build more infrastructure to support them," he said. "But our numbers are not significant enough for the industry to make that commitment."

In the absence of action from the private sector, the government has started building its own ATF supply infrastructure. Natural Resources Canada operates Canada's only E85 refuelling facility at its Ottawa headquarters, also providing E85 to Agriculture, Transport and Environment department vehicles.

Correctional Service of Canada currently has five propane and 16 natural gas refilling stations at sites across Canada, while Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) has installed two natural gas refuelling appliances at its Ottawa depot. They serve 27 of its 53 ATF vehicles. DND maintains 30 propane filling stations.

"We are determined to increase the number of ATF vehicles we operate," says Jacques LaBonté, manager of PWGSC's materiel management division. "Fuel availability continues to be the biggest obstacle, particularly in the north and Atlantic Canada."

Another difficulty faced by fleet managers is the limited supply of factory-produced ATF vehicles, compared to the number of gasoline models, suitable for federal government operations. Vehicle manufacturers are not producing ATF vehicles in the numbers originally anticipated and availability in Canada is dictated by demand in the US. Compounding the problem, many fleet managers complain that inconsistent and delayed delivery schedules on ATF vehicles make it difficult to plan and budget their acquisitions.

Operational difficulties associated with ATF vehicles are typified by the experience of the RCMP, which runs about 7,500 cars, vans, small trucks and SUVs, the biggest federal road fleet. Fleet analyst Michael Connolly cites the usual problems - high initial purchase price, lack of refueling infrastructure - but also says the range and performance of ATF vehicles is a major factor in police operations.

"Some of these cars only get about 250 kilometres to a fill-up, which is very limited," he says. "You also sacrifice acceleration and top speed, both of which are crucial considerations in a police vehicle. Finally, the availability of the vehicles themselves is a big limiting factor. About a third of our fleet is police cruisers - Crown Victorias and Chevrolet Impalas. The rest are various types of cars, trucks and SUVs and currently there aren't enough ATF vehicles being made in those categories."

Even in the face of all these obstacles, Treasury Board's Serge Joanisse remains positive about the future, saying, "There is a strong commitment on the part of all federal fleet managers to make the ATF program a success.

"We are buying ATF vehicles. We have developed tools to analyze what kind of fuel is most appropriate under different circumstances to help optimize the use and efficiency of ATF vehicles. And most departments are introducing their own initiatives to increase the penetration of greener vehicles.

"We don't have big numbers to show yet, but I can say that wherever it is possible to operate an ATF vehicle then that is happening. As we move forward, there are going to be more and more of those opportunities."


John Chenery has worked as a journalist and editor for national newspapers in Australia and the UK. Before moving to Toronto from Costa Rica, he was Director of Communications with the Earth Council.


 

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