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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Clean Cities Coalition says steer clear of petroleum

by John Pantalone

Even if you don’t think burning petroleum is melting the polar ice cap, there are plenty of good reasons to join the movement to reduce their use including national security, cleaner air and lowered fuel expenses, to name a few.

The Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition stands on the front lines of the effort to lower the state’s carbon footprint by encouraging alternative fuel use, new technologies and increased mass transit.

OSCCC Director Wendy Lucht and two OSCCC interns
with an eNow truck
Based at the University of Rhode Island’s Outreach Center on the Kingston campus, Ocean State Clean Cities has been operating since 1998, about five years after the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established Clean Cities programs through the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Following an inactive period, Ocean State Clean Cities has enjoyed a revival since 2008 when its current director, Wendy Lucht, took over.

After grinding away at building a coalition that now includes over 50 stakeholders across fuel and transportation businesses and industries, environmental groups, federal and state government agencies and others, Clean Cities has begun to show significant progress. In large part because of its efforts, Rhode Island has installed 50 electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state to encourage local drivers to purchase hybrid or electric cars. Rhode Island has also joined with several other states in pledges to put 3.3 million zero emission vehicles on the road over the next 12 years. Gov. Lincoln Chafee has also submitted plans to transition the state’s fleet to alternative fuel vehicles by using Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to pay for the cost difference between an alternative fuel vehicle and a comparably sized gas-powered car.

“When I came here in 2008, the organization had become inactive,” Lucht said. “Most of the stakeholders weren’t in the same positions they held when they joined, and the board was dormant. It took awhile to build things back up. There were 50 people at the first meeting we called, and we found a number of people who were new to the alternative fuel industry.”

Ocean State Clean Cities attempts to convince municipal officials and private vehicle fleet owners to convert to alternative fuels and vehicles. This is part of the national strategy embraced by DOE, which has identified its goal as reducing petroleum use by 2.5 billion gallons a year through 2020 by encouraging mass transit, smarter driving habits, and fuel saving techniques and technologies. DOE has estimated that its Clean Cities efforts have saved an estimated five billion gallons since 1993 with the most significant reductions occurring over the past five years.

U.S. Clean Cities says it has over 18,000 stakeholderes in more than 100 coalitions nationwide. According to the Clean Cities website, it “has funded more than 500 transportation projects nationwide and distributed $377 million in project awards, which have leveraged an additional $740 million in matching funds and in-kind contributions from other organizations in the public and private sectors.”

Lucht says Ocean State Clean Cities has focused on providing education on alternative fuels and petroleum reduction in transportation fleets, but it has also worked with state officials on policy issues. “We often find that we’re educating fleet owners about alternative fuels and federal policies and how they relate to Rhode Island,” she said. “There’s no question that economics is the driving force behind the movement for alternative vehicles and fuels.”

Lucht notes that Clean Cities tries to deal with obstacles to conversion including range anxiety about non-gas powered vehicles, technological phobia, resistance to change and safety concerns. “It’s our job to educate people so we can get past these obstacles,” she said, admitting that it is a slow process.

While it pushes the use of electric and hybrid vehicles, biodiesel and propane alternatives to gasoline, Lucht says Clean Cities encounters complications with something like getting the state to convert Department of Transportation vehicles to biodiesel. “It’s complicated because biodiesel requires winter additives, and you always have issues with winter temperatures changing,” she said. “Still, any conversion we can get helps the overall situation.”

Clean Cities encourages technological development to address issues such as delivery and transportation fleet idling, which occurs because the vehicles’ batteries lose power when they are not running. So, for instance, a fuel delivery truck or a food refrigeration truck burns a great deal of fuel while idling, which is costly and adds to air pollution. Technology companies, such as the Warwick-based Enow, are coming up with various technologies such as solar systems for battery recharging to power truck liftgates, refrigeration, lighting and equipment monitoring.

URI Psychology Professor Gary Stoner at an electric
vehicle charging station getting ready to juice up his 
Chevrolet Volt (Photo: Mike Salerno)
The 50 electric charging stations have been the biggest success so far for Clean Cities. The so-called “Top 50 Project” was initiated in discussions with the former director of URI’s Outreach Center, Marion Gold, who began a tenure as commissioner of the state’s Office of Energy Resources (OER) in August 2012. “We [the state] still had federal stimulus money left over, and we knew transportation was an area that needed attention,” Gold said.

“We had charging stations on our agenda and had been researching locations and calling places,” Lucht said about the evolution of the project. “Marion saw this as a good opportunity to move forward with it.”

After much discussion in early 2013 and twice going to bid for installation of the stations, OER settled on Charge Point, a major producer of charging stations, and worked with National Grid to get things lined up. It took time to identify sites, including many at private businesses and shopping centers, as well as 14 on state property, which Gold said were the most difficult to arrange. Business owners who host charging stations agreed to absorb the electricity costs for three years, and the state is engaged in a one-year pilot program to track use and cost.

Marion Gold speaking at a People's Power & Light
annual meeting
"It takes a strong public-private partnership to create a clean and efficient transportation future," she said. “In Rhode Island, we spend over $1 billion in the transportation sector annually, primarily for petroleum products. Transitioning away from fossil fuels with this dual approach of a statewide network and transitioning the state's fleet will help the environment and it will keep more dollars in the Rhode Island economy."

Gold noted that the eastern seaboard states have all agreed to transition vehicle fleets to alternatives in part because those states spend $77 billion on transportation fuels, most of which leaves the region. The New England states also agreed last December on an initiative to increase renewable energy and infrastructure via the N.E. States Commission on Electricity.

Wendy Lucht at a charging station
(Photo: Kate Venturini) 
While such gains are encouraging, Lucht says regulatory policy and infrastructure remain significant issues. If drivers use less gas, that means less tax revenue, so how would the state make up the difference, especially in respect to maintaining roadways and other transportation infrastructure? “We will have to figure out how to compensate if less gas used is used,” Lucht said. “Who will pay for infrastructure is a big question?”

You can find out more about the Clean Cities Coalition, alternative fuels and vehicles on their website.
John Pantalone is an Assistant Professor of Journalism and the Chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island campus in Kingston, RI. This article was produced as part of a project in the Department of Journalism to focus on environmental and energy reporting. Articles will periodically appear, written by faculty and students in the Journalism program.