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Alternative fuel fleet vehicles: Helping clear the air in Michigan, nationwide

AT&T has 400 such vehicles in Michigan, aims for 15,000 nationally
It sure doesn’t sound like news: A Chevy Express van arrives in Lenexa, KS. 
So why did AT&T issue a news release about it? And what’s the link to Michigan? 
For AT&T, the vehicle’s delivery to one of its technicians marked a significant milestone. The van—which runs on cleaner-burning compressed natural gas (CNG) instead of gasoline—was the 7,500th alternative fuel vehicle added to its fleet, putting the company halfway toward the goal of deploying 15,000 green vehicles by 2018, a $565 million effort it announced in 2009. About 400 of the company’s fleet vehicles are in Michigan. 
While AT&T is far from alone in working to shrink its vehicle fleet’s environmental footprint—Frito-Lay, Staples, Fed-Ex, Enterprise and other companies have announced programs for large-scale purchases of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs)—the communications giant is a prime example of how large fleet operators can drive markets for emerging vehicle technologies. 
“Fleets really make sense as early adopters for these technologies,” said Joshua Cregger, a project manager with the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Ann Arbor. “Fleet vehicles tend to have higher utilization, so the payback period on fixed vehicle costs can be shorter.” 
Fleets also tend to have consistent routes and central refueling locations. That helps managers maximize fleet efficiency because they can choose the most efficient vehicle for each type of trip and can refuel without having to stray from their regular route. 
And for auto manufacturers, fleet buyers are a big help, Cregger said. 
 “When companies make commitments to buy alternative fuel vehicles, that can drive orders of hundreds or thousands of vehicles at a time in a way individual consumer purchases can’t,” he added. “These larger commitments allow companies to better manage risk and plan production.” 
Corporate and government fleets comprise about 7 percent of the vehicles on the road in the United States, but they’re responsible for 35 percent of transportation-related fuel consumption, according to the Sierra Club. And since petroleum use accounts for about 40 percent of U.S. carbon emissions, burning less gasoline is an important strategy for combating climate change. 
Fleet operators also replace vehicles regularly to limit maintenance costs. That means they put used AFVs within reach for buyers who may not be able to afford a brand new green car. 
With more than 71,000 vehicles, AT&T is one of the country’s largest fleet operators. Its fleet is now about 10 percent AFVs, including nearly 5,700 vehicles running on CNG, 2,121 hybrid electric cars and a handful of all-electric vehicles. 
 “This investment is a step in the right direction that’s helping boost alternative-fuel industries while at the same time encouraging wider use and production of efficient vehicles and domestic fuel alternatives,” said AT&T Michigan President Jim Murray. “We also hope to set an example for other companies to further push the automotive industry in this direction.” 
It’s not just private fleets. In 2009 and 2010, the federal government bought 64 percent of the Chevy Malibu hybrids, 29 percent of the Ford Fusion hybrids and 14 percent of the Ford Escape hybrids sold, according to another CAR report. 
Local governments in Michigan and across the country also are looking to their vehicle fleets to save money and cut pollution. 
Ann Arbor, for example, adopted a green fleet policy in 2004 with the goal of reducing the city’s fuel use 10 percent by 2014. Operations analyst Tom Gibbons said the city already has passed that milestone and is continuing to make upgrades. All of Ann Arbor’s diesel vehicles now run on biodiesel. The fleet also includes plug-in hybrids and vehicles that run on compressed natural gas. 
 “In the long run, we’ve saved a lot of money because we’ve reduced our use of fuel,” he said. 
Having a green fleet policy in place is a big help for government employees who oversee local fleets, Gibbons said. Ann Arbor’s policy allows city staff to spend about 20 percent more to purchase an AFV instead of a conventional vehicle. 
“I like it a lot because it gives me that policy mandate up front,” he said. “So I know if I go to council and say I want to spend $5,000 on something, I know it’s in the policy.” 
The Ann Arbor–based Ecology Center, a Michigan Environmental Council member group, is working to encourage other Michigan cities to adopt similar policies, with an emphasis on electric vehicles.  
“Electrification of vehicles can, long-term, provide potentially the deepest reductions in carbon emissions,” said Charles Griffith, the group’s climate and energy program director. “Given that much of the research and development happens here in Michigan, we have a pretty big economic stake in the success of this industry.”
-Andy McGlashen, MEC
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