Welcome to Voltageville

What happens when a city fleet goes electric? In the case of Vacaville, CA, it charges up the whole town.


"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."

LIGHTS OUT?

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."

A FUEL FOR ALL SEASONS

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.

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