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Green Isn’t Cheap

City to test two modes of greener public transportation.

With a $3 million state grant, the City of Fairfax can take an important step in 2008 toward becoming a greener municipality.

The grant, from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, or DRPT, allows the city to replace six of its 12 CUE buses with hybrids. DRPT also provided funding to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission for a pilot project testing the benefit of installing hydrogen fuel injectors in public buses. The city is also the recipient of that project grant, which would be the first-ever use of the injectors in the United States, said Adam McGavock, the NVTC planning director.

The city replaces six of its buses every 10 years, said Alex Verzosa, the city’s transportation director. So instead of buying six more diesel buses in 2008, the city requested a grant about a year ago to turn public transportation green.

"Anything we can contribute to reduce emissions helps everybody," said Verzosa.

The city, and all of Northern Virginia, is in a nonattainment area — an area that does not meet the national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard, as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency. So fuel efficiency, while important, is not as important as reducing emissions, said Verzosa.

"We haven’t met our budget [as a region] to reduce emissions," he said.

The six new hybrids cost more than $500,000 each, as opposed to the $325,000 it costs for the current diesel buses. The hybrids will also burn diesel fuel, but at a much cleaner and slower rate. The manufacturer claims the city will save more than 50 percent in fuel, but Verzosa said the city isn’t looking at the switch just in terms of gas mileage. The city wants to be a leader in terms of emissions reductions, and public transportation is a great way to set an example, he said.

As for the fuel injectors, emissions reductions also take priority over fuel economy, said McGavock. The injectors could reduce tailpipe emissions by about 50 percent, he said, which is "very important being that we’re in a nonattainment area."

THE COST SAVINGS of the injectors would be substantial if the NVTC and the city determine that the injectors perform the way they are expected. McGavock found out about the technology on the Internet. He saw that Canadians were using them in ambulances and trucks, and he thought why not try it out on public transportation?

"We’ve only seen this used in trucking companies logging millions of miles," McGavock said. "So the question is, in a stop and go environment, how will it perform?"

That’s what these demonstration grants are all about, to test technologies that work in one environment, in a new environment. DRPT is extremely "forward-thinking," said McGavock, which has allowed the NVTC to think outside the box in order to try to reduce emissions.

The injector kits are about $12,000 per vehicle. They don’t need replacing or a lot of maintenance, other than adding water about once a month, McGavock said. One thing he wants to make sure people understand is that hydrogen is never stored anywhere on the vehicle.

"There’s a tank of water, and as hydrogen is created, it’s immediately burned off," he said. "These [injectors] are perfectly safe. They’re no more dangerous than a regular diesel bus."

The NVTC will be installing the injectors on four of the city’s 12 buses. So with the other six turning to hybrids in 2008, the city will have just two old-fashioned diesel buses left. The NVTC intends to run the demonstration for nine months, beginning this August and September. That should be enough time to determine the fuel economy and emissions performance of the injectors, said McGavock.

"The hydrogen makes the diesel burn cleaner, which translates to less pollution and savings in fuel," said Verzosa. "You don’t need as much fuel to power the engine if you’re able to burn the diesel more efficiently."

Since it’s a demonstration, the city will collect data and compare it to the efficiency of the hybrid buses. Hybrids should perform better than the injectors, said McGavock, but since they cost $500,000 a pop, the injectors could end up being a short-term solution until the region can afford to replace the more than 1,000 buses here with hybrids.

"We’re stuck with diesel buses for at least another 10 years. This is an inexpensive way to make it more palatable," said McGavock.

The city is a great locality for demonstrations like these, said Adrien Fremont, the city’s special projects engineer. In a six-square-mile city, it’s fairly easy to gauge the benefits of new programs, she said. Fremont is trying to start an initiative that would make the city green in every way possible, from building guidelines and light-saving traffic signals, to water efficiency. The city proposal to incorporate new environmental initiatives could take off as soon as a final green building report by the Council of Governments is released. She said the city would want to follow those guidelines before running with green initiatives on its own.

"I think the goal is to promote as much as possible, and be a team player with other localities to promote green building practices and energy efficiency," said Fremont.