FutureStructure

California Pushes for Non-Gas Vehicles in State Fleets

With an ever-expanding market of available alternative-fuel vehicles, one state agency in California is seeing new opportunities to go green.

by / May 9, 2016
Sacramento County, Calif., showcases a Toyota Mirai on May 9, 2016 at the first annual Alternative Transportation Expo. Ben Miller

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — When it comes to things like renewable energy, non-gasoline-powered vehicles and energy storage technology, the language proponents use is becoming very different from standard business talk.

Think “explosive growth” instead of “quarterly profit.”

That’s the ethos of an alternative fuel vehicle market waiting with baited breath as an enormous car-and-home battery factory gears toward production in the Nevada high desert, and it’s the message of solar advocates.

And now it’s creeping into state and local government too.

At the first annual Alternative Transportation Expo in Sacramento, Calif., on May 9, it was on full display. The state, famous for setting nation-leading environmental standards and adopting ambitious goals for public adoption of zero-emission cars, is now trying to find a way to work non-gasoline-powered vehicles into its own fleets.

This is where the “explosive growth” part comes in. Until now, the state government has purchased 300 zero-emission vehicles and installed 100 charging stations. Now, the Department of General Services (DGS) wants to multiply the number of charging stations tenfold before Gov. Jerry Brown leaves office in 2018. It also wants to start working with local government entities to help them purchase alternative fuel vehicles.

“When departments identify what kind of vehicles they want to purchase, we review their lists and say, ‘Have you considered this as an alternative?’” said DGS Director Daniel Kim.

That’s something the department is able to do more often these days, with a new portfolio of vehicles it’s negotiated pricing for. In the past, the department's alternative fuel offerings were slim — some compacts, perhaps a mid-sized sedan or two.

But the alt-fuel vehicle market is expanding fairly rapidly. On top of the growing number of battery electric passenger cars, DGS can now offer fleet managers compressed natural gas pickup trucks, as well as electric vans, sport utility vehicles and cargo vans. The department’s even worked Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai, into its offerings — this along with the state’s push to make the fuel relevant by building out the sparse network of hydrogen stations.

“I think one of the challenges departments have is, is this vehicle going to meet my needs? And especially for those departments where they have their offices where people have to drive a considerable amount, they need to make sure they have a charging station available for them,” Kim said.

Much in the spirit of Silicon Valley’s tech startup culture, there are a bevy of companies trying to fill niche needs to make alt-fuel vehicles more attractive for fleet managers. At the expo were companies such as Carbon Blu, offering an add-on to fleet management software that generates customized reports on the cost-effectiveness of alternative fuel vehicles, as well as Envision Solar’s portable solar photovoltaic array for charging electric cars.

Despite decreases in the cost of batteries — a trend that looks likely to continue as demand for big batteries increases and production facilities ramp up — Kim said he’s still not totally sure whether electric cars are cheaper for fleet managers just yet. But in California, a state whose governor has led international discussions on climate change, there are bigger reasons for state and local government to get away from carbon-emitting cars.

“In terms of emissions, in terms of reducing climate [change], when you think about those types of things — those larger meta-goals — yeah, it pays over time," Kim said. "In terms of dollars and cents, for the price of gas versus the price of electricity, that’s hard to say."

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.