Alternative Fuels and Technologies

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Conversion to alternative fuels and technologies can help reduce on-campus emissions, but the reductions will not be dramatic. However, there may be other compelling reasons to switch to electric, biodiesel, or compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles to improve local or regional air pollution and create educational opportunities around transportation and transportation technologies. Hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, CNG, biodiesel, and low-emission diesel can all be useful on campus. Fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, or a mix of the bio-based fuel with the petroleum, can be substituted for diesel or gasoline. Among the challenges are the availability of fuels and charging stations.

When we were considering appropriate uses for electric vehicles donated to Tufts by Toyota, we found that the diverse set of campus transportation needs allowed us to match the technology of electric vehicles with appropriate uses in mail services and public safety. This was key to making a successful transition to alternative technologies.

Our experience at Tufts suggests that not all vehicle technologies are appropriate for all applications. We began introducing alternatives five years ago by working with Ford and Toyota dealerships to arrange for a one-week loan of a Ford Ranger electric pickup and a Toyota Prius. Staff reaction to the pickup was unanticipated by TCI. Apparently one of the first things maintenance staff did was to take the pickup onto the interstate to see how it performed (it was entirely satisfactory) even though in regular use, the university pickups see little highway time. With the acceptable road test, the pickup became a huge hit, we were told, because it had a "good" radio. Apparently the regular trucks in the fleet lack FM radios. We mention this because we occasionally spend time speculating about the acceptability of new technology, particularly if there is a possible perception of an added "hassle factor." This short-term demonstration was a good reminder that acceptability of new technology may be influenced by a wide range of factors.

Hybrid Vehicles Hybrid vehicles are the most mainstream of the alternative vehicles. Toyota's Prius was the 2004 Motor Trend Car of the Year, and the waiting list for purchasing a vehicle can be as much as six months. Hybrid technology is well developed and dependable. Its use on campus can help to overcome myths by detractors and to heighten awareness. However, the hybrids on the market are not well suited to the full range of campus applications, because we need a variety of trucks, vans, and buses, many of which are available only in conventional form. In the future, this may change as additional hybrid models are developed.

Electric Vehicles Our experience with electric vehicles (EVs) at Tufts has been positive despite their limited travel distance between charges. The Toyota RAV4 EVs are limited to about 70 miles in warm weather and significantly fewer in cold weather. While the vehicles reduce emissions (when the batteries are discharged between charges), their best feature is their educational value. Our EVs are used by staff in mail services and public safety, so they are highly visible all over campus. Two other EVs are in our university-wide Zipcar shared-vehicle program, so many people can get behind the wheel and have an EV driving experience. Zipcar reports that some members are loyal EV drivers.

Installing the EV chargers and getting them up and running required significant effort on the part of TCI staff. We wanted the vehicles to be in highly visible locations, but most visible parking spaces do not have easy access to electrical power. Nonetheless, we did install the chargers, with dedicated meters, and they have been problem-free since fall 2003.

In addition to the RAV4 EVs, Tufts has purchased an electric tractor mower and has received a donation of a GEM, a General Motors electric golf-cart-style vehicle, that we use at our veterinary school.

The electric tractor has great promise for lawn mowing in a campus setting. Tufts has purchased one on a pilot basis, and initial feedback is positive. Electric mowers have the benefit of decreasing on-campus noise as well as emissions. At Tufts, our Electric OxTM is used on the lower end of campus, coincidentally for mowing the organic-turf baseball field. At one point the grounds manager suggested that we install PV panels to offset the power for the mower to complete the picture!

Biodiesel Biodiesel is a fuel made from renewable sources that can be produced domestically. It is essentially vegetable oil that meets the ASTM D6751 industry standard as well as EPA emission standards. It can be used alone (commonly known as B100) or as a blend with diesel fuel. The most common blend is B20, which is 80 percent petroleum-based and 20 percent biodiesel.21 The municipal government of Medford, Massachusetts, has used biodiesel at the city-operated cemetery since the fall of 2002 with no reported problems, although the diesel in the mix was a winter blend. When the city crews began to use it in their vehicles, the only reported difference was that the fuel filters on the engines had to be changed more frequently, initially because the B20 had the effect of cleaning the engine and removing deposits that had built up from the use of standard diesel.

Harvard University has been using B20 to fuel all of its diesel vehicles since 2003.22 This includes the fleet of shuttle buses that circulate around Harvard's campus, a densely populated residential area in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The reduced particulate emissions have met with widespread support throughout the community. Additionally, the university continued to use the fuel during an extremely cold period in January 2004, one of the coldest months on record.23 The biodiesel performed with no problems. This cold-weather performance should help dispel one of the persistent perceived problems with the fuel: that it would gel and not flow properly on cold days (it should be noted, however, that this is still an issue with pure biodiesel, B100).

During use, biodiesel reduces emission of unburned hydrocarbons, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide, while nitrogen oxides may be either decreased or increased depending on the duty cycle of the engine. Sulfur oxides are also significantly decreased. The USDA and DOE concluded that life-cycle emissions that contribute to global warming are reduced up to 78.5 percent compared to standard diesel if B100 is used; however, not all life-cycle assessments come to such optimistic conclusions on reductions in heat-trapping gas. If greenhouse gas reduction is the primary goal of introducing biodiesel, we recommend a careful review of the literature. Biodiesel is nontoxic; table salt is ten times more toxic. This makes it much easier to deal with if there is an accidental spill.24 There is a premium cost associated with biodiesel, but it is small relative to the costs associated with some other emission reductions.

Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the transit authority that serves Boston, purchased compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered buses at a premium approaching $50,000 per bus to meet the air quality mandates of the federal government and local activists. It is possible that they could have met these mandates through the use of emission-controlled diesel buses that utilize a blend of low-sulfur diesel and biodiesel at a much lower overall cost.

There is debate, however, as to the effectiveness of CNG in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In some CNG-powered engines, unburned fuel escapes into the atmosphere. For this reason, Tufts decided not to pursue the use of CNG in police vehicles.

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