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Alternative Fuel Vehicles and Resilience

By Brinley Wilson, Utah Clean Cities 

The concepts of emergency resiliency and preparedness are of critical importance to Utah Clean Cities. As a coalition, we believe incorporating biodiesel, electric, natural gas, and propane vehicles into emergency fleets can diversify energy portfolios and create reliant transportation alternatives.

On Wednesday, March 18 at 7:09 AM, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck Magna that could be felt from Logan down to Utah County. Various impacts were seen throughout Utah including approximately 10,000 Rocky Mountain Power customers left without power as of 1:38 PM, March 18, down from approximately 50,000 earlier in the day. The Utah Transit Authority (UTA) was forced to halt FrontRunner trains between Murray and Salt Lake City for two hours and all TRAX service Wednesday morning until further notice.

The Utah Department of Transportation required a temporary closure of the ramp to westbound I-215 at Union Park Boulevard on March 18. The Cottonwood Heights Police tweeted that the closure will last for the next three to seven days until a full assessment can be completed. UDOT’s Spokesperson, John Gleason, said that the closure may not last that long as it is simply a precaution considering inspectors are occupied assessing more than 500 bridges affected by the earthquake.  The recent earthquake is a reminder that the time to adopt advanced fuels is now.

Natural disasters of this scale can impact petroleum pipelines, storage tanks, production and distribution as well as electric and natural gas sectors. In the case of natural disasters and emergencies where conventional fuel supplies are disrupted, alternative fuels can increase emergency resilience and preparedness. To ensure we are prepared for future emergency scenarios, we should accelerate the adoption of alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies.

In 2019, The National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO), the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development (OED) and the Utah Clean Cities Coalition (UCCC) developed a report that examines how alternative fuels and alternative vehicles can heighten Utah’s emergency resiliency by diversifying their vehicle fleets and be leveraged as an emergency response resource should their state’s transportation fuels sector be disrupted in an emergency.

 The report concluded that diversifying the fuels utilized by a fleet can increase its resilience and stated that the ideal emergency response fleet contains multiple fuel sources including biofuels, electricity, natural gas and propane among others. This is due to the understanding that, if a natural or man-made disaster were to cut off Utah’s major supply of conventional fuels, emergency response teams could turn to fleets that run on alternative fuels to perform necessary services.

For example, plug-in electric vehicles can be particularly beneficial in an emergency because of their capability to act as generators to power emergency response systems such as communications equipment, traffic lights or fuel pumps.

 Fuel Diversification Report: The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has identified that a series of disasters have proved the value of transportation fuel diversity. Should a state of emergency occur, NREL has established a “5-Pronged Approach to Resilience” which includes redundancy, access, storage, resupply and efficiency. All of which aim to achieve increased preparedness regarding alternative vehicles and advanced fuels even before disaster strikes. UCCC partners with NREL to gather data and research that advises future research needs and supports local decision making on alternative fuels, energy-efficient mobility systems and measures that enhance transportation efficiency and reduce transportation energy costs.

Nationwide, alternative fuel vehicles are being considered for emergency and service fleets. Electric vehicles have fewer components, so adopting AFVs means less maintenance and increased response time. Firefighters in Menlo Park, California, recently unveiled the world’s first all-electric fire engine meant to replace a traditional carbon-emitting fire truck. In Utah, the Salt Lake City Fire Department (SLCFD) is considering adding the all-electric fire truck to its fleet which was exhibited at the Sugar House Fire Station this month. The SLCFD is looking to reduce their carbon emissions and contribute to cleaner air. If purchased, the electric fire truck would support the city’s climate and clean air goals of an 80% reduction of Salt Lake City’s community carbon footprint by 2040. 

The state of Utah currently has two utilities operate 429 alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs), several municipalities, two transportation providers and six school districts have added AFVs to their fleets, private fleets make up the largest AFV user group and several state and federal agencies have adopted the use of alternative fuels. These are the alternative vehicles and advanced fuels that the state would rely on in the case of an emergency. While this development is promising, Utah is still capable of expanding its emergency resiliency by encouraging the implementation of alternative vehicles and advanced fuels among emergency and service fleets.

To support Utah’s expansion of alternative vehicles and advanced fuels, Utah Clean Cities created the Green Fleet Program to provide resources and specialized training opportunities for businesses, municipalities and organizational fleets to diversify energy portfolios through the adoption of alternative fuels and advanced vehicle technologies. The goal of the program is to provide a forum for local businesses, government and the public to collaborate on public policy and programs for alternative fuel used in the state’s transportation sector. The Green Fleet Program works to identify emergency uses of alternative fuel vehicles through (1) recruiting existing fleets, (2) establishing and maintaining a protocol to be followed in an emergency through engagement with local emergency managers and (3) ensure that emergency response teams have access to iREV’s Tracking Tool, a resource to locate alternative fuel dispensing facility. 

Furthermore, Utah has an abundance of alternative fuel resources that can be utilized during an emergency that disrupts the supply of conventional fuels. By establishing and maintaining plans and procedures and collaborating with municipalities to understand the significant role alternative fuel vehicles play, Utah will be better prepared and equipped in the case of natural disasters and state-wide emergencies. 

Want to learn more about the benefits and considerations of incorporating biodiesel, electric, natural gas, and propane vehicles into emergency fleets? NASEO has developed a series of case studies that highlight ways that various alternative fuel vehicles have been used during emergencies:

  1. Biodiesel Fueled Vehicles and Emergency Response
  2. Electric Vehicles and Emergency Response
  3. Natural Gas Vehicles and Emergency Response
  4. Propane Vehicles and Emergency Response