Friday, January 16, 2009

Welcome to Voltageville

Welcome to Voltageville
Fleet Maintenance Magazine
By Mark O'Connell

Ed Huestis isn't a fleet maintenance manager--by title, he's a systems manager for the City of Vacaville Department of Public Works--so you might wonder why his story is appearing on the pages of Fleet Maintenance magazine. Then again, you wouldn't have to wonder at all if you were one of the many fleet managers in California asking Huestis to come and give a presentation on how to reduce your fleet's fuel consumption and fuel costs by switching to renewable energy.

Huestis is in great demand. He spends a lot of his evenings traveling around the region, explaining to fleet managers how he single-handedly made Vacaville a mecca for electric highway vehicles in the early 1990s, to the point where the city once boasted the greatest number of electric highway vehicles per-capita of any city in the United States (back then, the local press dubbed Vacaville "Voltageville," and the nickname has stuck).

"They want to do something," Huestis says of his colleagues, "they just don't know what to do and how to do it."

But helping other fleets see the light is not the whole of Huestis' accomplishment. In a state that is known for its car culture, Huestis has convinced hundreds of city managers, city employees and residents of his entire county to abandon gasoline- and diesel-powered transportation in favor of alternative-fuel vehicles.


Ed Huestis is a modest guy. He says that all he does is administer grants, but that's like Superman saying he's just a guy who can jump pretty high.

He was employed by Vacaville in 1992 to adminsiter the Trip Reduction Rule, a California State program that mandated major employers to reduce the number of trips made by employees to the worksite. "But that phased out when there was a lot of ruffling of feathers, and the employers said they didn't want anything mandatory like this," he says. "Somehow they got it watered down to where it was done on a voluntary basis."

But Huestis wasn't out of a job. The city had a need for a grants administrator to bring in state and federal money for capital improvement projects, and Huestis got the position. One of the money sources he identified was the state's CMAQ (Congestion, Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement) Program, which disburses grants for transportation projects that affect air quality. That could mean building a bike path through town, or it could mean buying an electric vehicle for the city's fleet.

Coincidentally, General Motors had recently introduced the EV1 electric coupe to the California market, and Huestis and his wife had been among the first customers to sign up.

"When we started seeing the ads for the EV1, it was about $600 a month in Los Angeles," Huestis recalls. "I said, 'There's no way I'm going to pay that kind of price to get into an EV1.' But they came down, and offered some incentives, and it got down to about $399, and I said, 'Let's do this.'"

"When we took delivery in August of '98, we had a Ride-n-Drive event, and it was fantastic; 0-60 in less than eight seconds?" he exclaims. "My wife and I were having to build more time into when we went shopping, because we would get out of the car and people would be asking us about it, because it was so unique. Then, when we came back out to the car, people would be asking us about it. And we'd see fingerprints all over the windows, because people would be peering inside.

"I was happy to do that," he says, "but I thought, what if I had 10 or 15 people taking the time to explain things to people to raise the awareness level, to show people that electric cars exist, you can go to the Saturn dealership and you can actually lease this vehicle? So the seed was planted; we wanted everyone to be driving this car."


So Ed Huestis had an idea that no one had ever had before. What if he really could get everyone into an EV1?

"People were saying they would get one if it didn't cost so much," he says, "so I started thinking, 'I might be able to use some grant money for this… let me see how I can do this.'"

It wouldn't be easy.

"CalTrans administers the CMAQ dollars," Huestis explains. "They get the money from the feds, but at the state level they approve the projects, and then we work with local assistance groups to define the scope of the project. Even though CalTrans headquarters had already approved the project, the local assistance guys said 'We've never done this before. This must not be eligible.' Real status quo kind of thing."

But Huestis and the status quo don't get along real well. It wasn't long before Huestis was appealing to CalTrans headquarters to talk some sense into the local authorities, and allow him to use CMAQ funds to buy down the cost of electric vehicles for Vacaville residents as well as the city fleet. "HQ got back to the local assistance group and said 'We want our name attached to this. You go back to Vacaville and do this,'" he says.

"No one had ever done this before, using this pot of money to buy the cost down for the public," Huestis explains. "You can use it for the fleets, but EV1 didn't seem to be appropriate for most fleets. But we certainly wanted our residents to be driving these in town. And we didn't want the public to see us driving alternative fuel vehicles in the city fleet and saying, 'See, they get to do that, but what about us?'

"So I was always trying to put myself in the position of our residents, because I am one," he says. "We need to have these driven on the freeway. We need people to see these on the freeway so they know, 'Okay, there is something else out there. I should look into this.'"

So, within certain restrictions--the money has to be for public good, and it can only go towards the incremental costs--Huestis set up a program where the city would offer residents a $5,000 buydown on the vehicle and $1,000 to put the charger in the garage. "(CalTrans) said we couldn't offer the $1,000 because the charger at home only benefits the individual," Huestis says. "So, I said, 'Okay, we'll make it $6,000 for buying the car, and they can spend it any way they want,' and that was acceptable to them."

And so, the City of Vacaville Electric Vehicle Program was born. "At least nobody else has to go through that drill that we had to go through," Huestis concludes. "It took six months to get it approved."
Now he just needed two things: people and cars.


With $300,000 in funding for 1999, Huestis went right to work getting electric vehicles into Vacaville driveways, and building public charging stations all over town.

"Because we wanted several people to get into that vehicle by the end of the year--there were some Federal tax breaks available, and people wanted to take advantage of that--there were five of us who got approval on December 21, and took delivery on Christmas," he says. Those five GM EV1 electric coupes came with nickel-metal-hydride batteries instead of lead acid batteries; this gave the vehicles greater range than previous models, but the batteries also got quite hot. Kind of a problem in central California, but Huestis and his acolytes were overjoyed to have such a problem if it meant not spending a cent on gasoline.

At the same time the electric vehicles were appearing around town, public charging stations were springing up all over the place. Huestis felt it was necessary to have public charging stations readily accessible at every Vacaville exit along I-80, but a few other locations became just as important as the process developed.

The Vacaville City Hall boasts nine electric vehicle public charging stations powered by a 30 kW photovoltaic array on the roof of the building. The city's Park and Ride lot features six public charging stations, powered by a 45 kW solar array. Five charging stations are located in the town's Costco parking lot ("We contacted them before they started building," Huestis says. "We said that if they lay the conduit, which hardly costs them a thing, we'll install the charging units. It's more aesthetically pleasing, and costs less, than if we had to come back after the fact and dig trenches"); two more charging stations can be found in the parking lot of a popular local bowling alley. Several more popped up in the neighboring communities of Dixon and Rio Vista. "We have 47 charging stations between the three cities," Huestis notes. "No one ever has to wait."


As Huestis secured more funding, more Vacavillians took advantage of the incentive program and signed up to lease EV1s. After the first five in 1999, three more EV1s came to town in 2000, followed by 24 in 2001 and a staggering 41 in 2002.

Then, to Huestis' delight, manufacturers started introducing electric vehicles suitable for fleet use, and soon the Vacaville city fleet had a Chevy S-10 electric pickup, two Ford Ranger electric pickups and four Toyota RAV4 electrics. At the same time, Huestis helped private users get leases on seven Chevy S-10s, four Ford Rangers and 16 RAV4s. Then the city added six Nissan electric Hyperminis (a so-called "City EV," capable of speeds of 60 miles an hour, but not safe for highway driving) and 10 Nissan Altra electric station wagons (the City of Dixon also acquired two Altras).

Did you lose count? Not surprising. By the end of the 2003 model year, 100 electric vehicles were buzzing around town, giving Vacaville the largest number of electric vehicles per-capita of any city in the US. And CMAQ funding was helping pay for every last one of them.

It wasn't always easy, and at one point early in the program, it looked as though Vacavile might never get its first electric vehicle. In early 2000, GM recalled every EV1 to replace their standard lead-acid batteries with the newer, longer-range models, which weren't available yet. No batteries meant no cars.

"It was frustrating," Huestis recalls. "Here we are, we've got everything in place now, we just took six months working with CalTrans to get this program in place, and now we've got another hurdle: there are no more cars. We can't get the new ones, because they have to offer them first to the people who had the old EV1s, and the other ones weren't available because they were being recalled…

"One year later, March, 2001, we were the first to get our car back," he says. "GM said, 'We're going to give you these older EV1s first, because you already have an educated group.' They also got upgraded to advanced Panasonic lead-acid batteries, which had a 100-120 mile range, almost as good as the nickel-metal-hydrite, but without the heat issues."


The recall scare was a rude reminder that the OEM, after all, owned the vehicles, and could do whatever it wanted with them.

But by then, Huestis was snapping up electric Toyotas and Fords, so he wasn't worried. Toyota even offered its electric RAV4s for purchase, a welcome development after the uncertainty of GM's leases.

"I never wanted to go through the EV1 experience again, having to give up cars that we really wanted," Huestis says. "So we purchased our RAV4s right from the get-go. We got the $9,000 incentive from the state, but there was a $4,000 federal tax credit for the original purchaser.

"With the city fleet, we started out with four RAV4s back in 2001, then got two Ford Ranger EVs for our water meter readers, then one Chevy S-10 for our utilities, then six Nissan Hyperminis," he continues. "Our parking enforcement guy loved it. He was devastated when we had to take that way from him after six years.

In fact, every city employee who had a chance to drive an electric electric vehicle wanted to stay with electric. "Once you're driven electric you can never go back to gasoline," Huestis says.


"At our peak, we had 100 electric vehicles," says Huestis. "If we could have kept those 100 vehicles on the road, averaging 10,000 miles a year, that would have been 1 million zero–emission miles driven annually."

But then the tide turned. The California law that mandated manufacturers to offer zero-emissions vehicles in the state was repealed, and as quickly as possible, the OEMs started to take back every leased electric vehicle they could. Huestis was heartbroken.

"Chevy took the EVs back, crushed most of them," he says. "The Chevy S-10s had to go back, the Ford Rangers had to go back. Only the RAV4s were able to stay on."

Those RAV4s offered Huestis the ray of hope he needed to keep his program alive.

"I asked Toyota if we could get any additional vehicles. They said they'd work on it," he recalls. "They offered a three-year lease that could secretly be extended two more years, but after five years they didn't want to take any more of a chance, because they didn't know how long these batteries would last (it's supposed to be 120,000 to 150,000 miles).

"They were about to take them all back and start crushing them as well," Huestis says, "but there was some tactful protesting going on, and… the Japanese automakers are concerned about 'face,' they want to look good. So they changed their tune on that. They let us have those vehicles and they let us have others that other governments were giving up."

Through shrewd bargaining with Toyota and a willingness to take on other municipalities' vehicles, Huestis was able to keep the voltage in Voltageville even as it was dying out elsewhere.

In addition to a few still owned privately, there are now 25 electric RAV4s in the city fleet (still a record on its own), all under a (so far) one-year renewable lease from Toyota, an arrangement that has enabled the carmaker to save face. The monthly payments are $300--Huestis pays half, and the city department to which each vehicle is assigned pays the other half. The leases have all lasted past five years, yet none of the vehicles has yet to clock even 50,000 miles.

Who uses the electric RAV4s? Huestis uses one regularly, as does the city's IT department. The police department uses them, as do the building inspectors, the city engineers, the director and deputy director of public works, the courthouse staff and facilities supervisor.

"A lot of our senior management are driving these vehicles," he says. "Half the vehicles are charged here at city hall, coming off the same meter as the solar panel. I couldn't just put it on the building, but if there's a transportation link I can do that. In the summer, we generate about 3,000Kw/hrs a month, and we use about 1,000Kw/hr to charges the vehicles, so there's a benefit to the city of 2,000Kw/hrs, so we're lowering the utility bill at city hall, as well as charging our vehicles at no cost. And it's open to the public. We can pull 16 vehicles up to the chargers and they can swap chargers instead of having to move vehicles around."


Huestis' ability to keep his electric fleet alive and humming masks a slight problem: no manufacturer is currently building any all-electric on-highway vehicles.

Faced with this fact several years ago, Huestis had to change the emphasis of his perpetual grant machine.

"We went with the next best technology: natural gas," he explains. "I still had money in the EV program, but I got $325,000 for natural gas vehicles. I didn't have to deal with infrastructure, because PG&E, our public utility, already supplies natural gas. We already had a 24/7 station in Vacaville."

Huestis has been able to use these funds to buy the cost down of a natural gas vehicle, although he can't make it a better deal than a gasoline car. "I can for my fleet, but I didn't even for my fleet, because otherwise all sorts of departments would be saying, 'Hey, I want a free car!'" he explains. "No, if you're already in car buying, car replacement mode, I'll cover the incremental costs to get you into an alternative fuel vehicle.

"Take the RAV-4," he says. "That was $42,000 MSRP, but a gasoline version is around $21,000. So there's a $21,000 incremental cost. Well, I could give a few people a whole lot of money, or I could limit it to $6,000 and get a lot of people involved. So that's what I did.

"The incremental cost on the Honda Civix GX is $4,500, and that's what I covered," he says. "So they didn't have to pay a premium to get into a cleaner-burning vehicle. We also got five of them for our police department. We got a couple F-150 trucks, some CNG vans, but we were mostly focusing on the public."


After a few years of operating separate electric vehicle and natural gas vehicle programs, Huestis decided to roll both programs into one "Alternative Fuel Vehicle" funding program.

"As these monies dry up, from the original amounts, I'll switch over to the Alternative Fuels Vehicle Program: one program to manage; one set of grant paperwork that will provide more flexibility, whatever product is available, whether it's all battery-electric vehicles, or dedicated CNG vehicles, for our fleet and for our residents," he says.

"And I added associated infrastructure; we've expanded the program to include incentives on the Phill home CNG refueling unit," he says. "CalTrans again balked at that, saying it only benefits the homeowner, but I said, 'Different situation here, folks.'

"I didn't want our city employees to be excluded from this program, but some of them don't live here in Vacaville," he explains. "So, our program eligibility is for anyone who lives, and works, in Vacaville, Dixon or Rio Vista, the next towns over. We have the only public 24/7 CNG filling station in the county. Dixon and Rio Vista don't have them, and we can't expect people to come all the way to Vacaville to refuel. If we could give them a break on a home refueling unit from Fuelmaker in Toronto, they'll be more likely to get a car. Now, the car provides a public benefit, and CalTrans signed off on that."

Now, anyone who lives or works in Vacaville can apply for the CNG program. If they qualify, they can get a Honda Civix GX, regularly listing at $25,225, for $9,000 less (as of June, 2008), the same as a gasoline powered Civic. The incentive package consists of a $4,000 federal tax credit, a $3,000 state rebate, $1,000 from the City of Vacaville, and a $1,000 incentive from the local Honda dealer (which, up until the time Huestis informed them, didn't even know that Honda sold a natural gas model).

In addition, as of June, 2008, buyers can also get a $1,000 federal tax credit and a $2,000 incentive from Huestis' program to buy and install a Phill CNG home fueling station, which would normally cost as much as $7,000.


Both the city and its residents are benefitting from operating CNG vehicles.

The city benefits from a 50 cents-per-gallon-equivalent refund on all the natural gas they use in their CNG Civics, vans, pickups and transit buses. Private owners who commute to Sacramento or the San Francisco Bay area can drive in High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, cutting travel time considerably, and those going to San Francisco are exempt from paying bridge tolls. Huestis sees it as a qulity of life issue; people who can commute home in the HOV lanes can make it home in time to have dinner with their families.

"There are people on the freeway right now who are trapped, and I feel sorry for them," he says. "They can't get out of their commute; transit doesn't always work for them. I had one gal come in who's driving a Chevy Tahoe 40 miles up to Sacramento and back by herself, getting 15 miles per gallon, paying 30 cents a mile; that's $30 to get to work and back! And she's tried out the CNG program and she's on the waiting list to get a car.

"It's hurting these people, and it's not so much the price per gallon," he insists. "What I'm finding out is, when it gets up to a point where it costs $70 or $80 to fill up the car, and they've got a credit card that's only authorized for $50, and it stops at that magic dollar amount, people start to say 'This is ridiculous. This is too much.' So they're looking for alternatives, but they don't know what they are. So we're doing all we can to get the word out."


Although there has been a lull in the availability of electric on-highway vehicles, Huestis is getting ready for new models that will be appearing in the 2010-2012 timeframe. He is using his program money to install 110V outlets on all existing charging stations, to get ready for plug-in hybrids, and he is hoping that new electric on-highway vehicles from Miles and Tesla will soon be lining up to use the city's existing charging stations.

Meanwhile, he spends a lot of his time visiting other fleets, telling them how they, too, can operate on less gasoline than they're using now.

"Most cities are not going to be able to take this on on their own," he says. "Everyone's tight right now with their budget, so they're not going to be able to have a bucket of money just sitting there for a program like this. They're going to have to go out and find out where they can get that money. It is available, in California, or anywhere there are air quality issues, and it's directly applicable to this type of program. But what you find is that the people who would like to do something like this are not the same ones who deal with the grant monies.

"So they'll have to develop a relationship there, and first of all find out who's doing the call for projects, either within their community or at the county level or further beyond that," he explains. "Because there are calls for projects, and people are submitting calls for projects, and this is an eligible project for this kind of money. Agencies are looking for worthy projects and they don't have enough projects for the money that's available."

In other words, it may be difficult, but it can be done. And it doesn't hurt to get the public in on the act. Huestis doesn't have to promote his program at all, because word of mouth is so strong. "Voltageville" may have lost some of its buzz in the past few years, but the people who are benefitting from Huestis' vision are still happy.

"Whenever I see them at the CNG fueling station they're smiling," Huestis says, "because they're paying 1/3 less than they pay for gasoline."