Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah
Picture of Utah

Cities going green as gas prices go higher

The Salt Lake Tribune
Steve Gehrke
May 27, 2008

As gasoline prices continue to skyrocket, even governments with multimillion-dollar budgets are feeling the pinch.

Prices, over the past two months, have climbed by nearly a buck, up from about $2.90 in March. The national average for a gallon of mid-grade gasoline is now about $4, with Salt Lake City just 12 cents behind, according to AAA's daily fuel-gauge report.

And while some cities are still hesitant to cough up thousands of dollars to switch to fuel-efficient fleets - they say converting vehicles to natural gas or buying new hybrids still costs too much - others are re-evaluating.

"The rising costs have really added some impact because I dont know of anyone meeting their fuel budgets right now," said Robin Erickson, director with Utah Clean Cities, which seeks to increase air quality and energy security by cutting down petroleum use.

Costly fill-ups have convinced cities such as Draper and West Valley City to look at compressed natural gas and hybrid vehicles, respectively.

Those technologies already have helped the state and a few progressive cities clean up the environment - and save some of their taxpayers; green in the process.

So whos going green?

Salt Lake City, South Jordan, Midvale and Murray are just a few examples of cities that have been cruising down the road to fuel efficiency for years.

Forty cars in Salt Lake City's 1,000-plus vehicle fleet are hybrids or run on CNG, which sells for about 80 cents per gallon. Meanwhile, all its heavy equipment and diesel-powered vehicles use biodiesel.

City fleet manager Lamont Nelson says the capital's major focus has been switching toward smaller cars.

"There was a time when SUVs were what everyone had," Nelson says. "We've eliminated better than 120 of those and replaced them with lighter, fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly vehicles."

Like Salt Lake City, South Jordan uses biodiesel in much of its equipment, including about 58 vehicles. The city's deputy director of operations, Jason Rasmussen, says he would purchase natural-gas vehicles - or do natural-gas retrofits - if it gets a fueling station in its public-works yard.

As gasoline costs continue to climb, Rasmussen expects eventually the city will find it cost-effective to buy hybrid vehicles. But he is still waiting for the "break-even point."

Midvale likewise has used biodiesel for two years on anything that will take it - about 10 pieces of fire equipment, 10 dump trucks and tractors and a few smaller vehicles. It also runs one senior-citizen bus on natural gas and is looking at using fully electric cars for meter readers and inspectors.

And Murray's Power Department has used four Toyota Prius hybrids during the past few years. Workers have praised the better mileage and lower pollutants. The city is looking at the costs of moving toward CNG, since it has a filling station.

The state also has been getting in on the fuel-efficiency movement.

"The environmental savings of these vehicles is the equivalent of taking 32 vehicles off the street," says spokeswoman Vicki Schoenfeld, who added that the state has taken the equivalent of another 76 vehicles off the roads by purchasing smaller vehicles.

West Valley City just bought hybrids and is considering purchasing more.

The city says the fuel savings through the car's service life will far outweigh the purchasing costs.

Russ Willardson, director of West Valley City's public works, says he began looking at hybrids last year, but with the much higher gas prices now, he said they became "even more attractive."

Draper is considering similar purchases, but its fleet manager worries hybrids might not be strong enough to suit, for example, the police force.

Meanwhile, some cities are taking other steps.

Riverton, for example, is increasing its mileage and decreasing its fuel costs by downgrading its 70-vehicle fleet from four-wheel-drive and eight-cylinder engines.

"We want to look at all the ways to save money," says fleet manager Dave Holly, adding that Riverton has a policy that cracks down on idling time.

And cities aren't the only ones trying to kick the oil habit. Individuals are flocking to the state for details on fuel-efficient vehicles.

Energy-program Coordinator Mat Carlile, says there has been a sudden influx of interest. Calls have grown from one or two a year to 25 calls and 15 e-mails a day.

"Some people are interested in doing the environmentally sound thing, but a lot of people are interested in the cost of gas," Carlile says. "You can tell from previous years there wasn't quite the interest there - and I'm sure this is because of the difference in gas prices."

How much can it save?

t's not cheap to purchase hybrids over traditional vehicles or to convert gasoline-powered cars to compressed natural gas.

But the higher gasoline prices are lowering that break-even point.

For example, it costs about $5 to fill a natural-gas fueled Honda Civic compared to $38 or more for one using gasoline.

Compound that by the six natural-gas vehicles Draper is considering buying, for example, and that city could save about $200 - under current gasoline prices - every time its fleet fills up .

Sandy won't get that kind of payoff from the four Ford Escape hybrids in its 540-vehicle fleet, but the city says those sport utility vehicles, which average 24 to 26 miles per gallon, each save about $650 per year in fuel costs.

Erickson says it now takes an average of just three years to get back the additional purchasing costs through gas savings.

"With a hybrid, the benefit and beauty is when you're on city roads because it runs electric and doesn't idle when you come to a stop sign," she says. "If you were just traveling those roads, the payback could be instantaneous."

And beyond those savings, the government can help with initial purchase costs.

On Jan. 1, the state will begin offering tax incentives for hybrids that meet certain standards. Additionally, the federal government already offers a $4,000 credit for CNG vehicles, and the state gives $3,000. Erickson stresses CNG conversion requires kits approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Essentially, reaction among fleet managers indicate that moving toward fuel efficiency is an idea whose time has come.

"Let's face it," says Eagle Mountain's administrator, John Hendrickson, who already drives a Prius, "this is a difficult time in the economy, and it's being caused by not only the housing issue and growth, but also by [gasoline]."

Rosemary Winters and María Villasigñor contributed to this story.

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