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Herndon Goes Green

Town looks to join clean air movement with federally-financed purchase of alternative fuel vehicles

The Town of Herndon will soon be joining the ranks of the low-emissions vehicle revolution. A federal EPA grant money will be used next year to supply the town with more environmentally-friendly vehicles, with the possibility of more clean air efforts for the future.

"This is just our small part to help out towards cleaner air in the region," said Dana Hyberg, senior planner for Herndon's Department of Community Development. "We typically invest in things like vehicles anyway, so we wanted to make the most of this program ... not only get some new vehicles, but also get ones that do not adversely affect the environment."

Earlier this year, the Town of Herndon was approved for a grant of $180,000 to be used in fiscal year 2007, which started in July of this year, for the purchase of hybrid vehicles or retrofit upgrades to limit emissions in vehicles currently owned by the town, according to Hyberg. It was announced last Tuesday that the town would be putting in another solicitation for $150,000 for the same objectives for next year.

The grant, composed of federal money allocated under the 1990 Clean Air Act to reduce pollutants, was issued to the Town of Herndon through the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Program of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

LAST YEAR, the program issued $24.69 million for community projects in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties and the City of Alexandria, according to Tom Biesiadny, chief of the coordination and funding division of Fairfax County and the chairman of the technology committee for the regional transportation authority.

Since Northern Virginia has been listed as a moderate non-attainment region for certain federal o-zone criteria, it receives federal money for emissions reduction.

While only a small portion of the group's resources are on investments in hybrid vehicles or vehicle upgrade kits, a large segment of its air quality initiatives are devoted towards limiting government vehicle emissions, Biesiadny said.

"Since we don't have heavy industry like steel plants or automobile manufacturers in Northern Virginia, a large amount of our pollution comes from automobiles," he said, pointing out that vehicle emissions are the number one contributor to air pollution in the region.

Despite the recent push from many in the private and public sector to switch to hybrid vehicles and clean-burning alternative fuels, Biesiadny said that there has not yet been a large amount of requests locally for these vehicles, as the technology is still new and cannot efficiently meet a lot of the demands of governments.

THE MOST DIFFICULT part about finding a way to incorporate environmentally-friendly vehicles into a municipal fleet is determining which additions can be made that will provide the greatest positive effect, said Hyberg.

"It's difficult to tell. You might get more bang for your buck if you buy more retrofit kits than you would if you just bought a couple hybrid cars," Hyberg said. "But that's the nice thing about these grants — we have a lot of flexibility in deciding what will work best for the town."

The lower emission vehicles could also benefit the town financially, Hyberg added, as they would lower the amount of gas consumed and, with it, lower monthly expenditures.

The challenge is in determining just what will work most efficiently for the town when it comes to making the changes to the fleet, said Charlie Kemp, general services administrator for Herndon's Department of Public Works. The town has already been using a low-sulfur diesel fuel with limited negative emissions for more than the last 10 years, he added.

"You've got different types of fuels that we're talking about sometime here, and that might mean that we need a new tank or something to store that kind of fuel," Kemp said while walking through rows of town vehicles in a garage. "A lot of what we have here runs on diesel, so would it make sense to switch to a different type of diesel?"

ANY DECISION to retrofit a government vehicle, Kemp added, will need to take into account the needs that vehicle would then have to be fueled in an efficient manner. If vehicles are switched to run on compressed natural gas, for instance, a local supply of the fuel must be found or an efficient method for delivering and storing it in Herndon must be found.

This could require the town to speak with other area government facilities to determine if the town's fleet can tap into their supplies, he said.

"If you've got a simple fleet … where it's just one form of fuel, it would be easy," Kemp said. "But here we've got lawnmowers, we've got pick-up trucks, we've got garbage trucks, so it's not easy at all with a fleet like ours."

It might be more efficient to replace aging town vehicles used by non-sworn town employees with hybrid vehicles over time while the hybrid technology is adapted to newer types of vehicles like trucks and police cars, he added.

The town has several months to figure out a specific course of action to be taken with the grant. The money itself won't be available until January of next year, Kemp said.

For Hyberg, participation in the program is a way of investing town money with the environment in mind. He estimated that the town would be able to retrofit at least 10 vehicles for cleaner fuels with the initial grant.

"It's only a drop in the bucket when we're talking about the big picture, but with all the other local groups and government and residents pooling in, we can go a long way towards improving" air quality, he said.