Austin, Texas faces tough road to carbon-neutral fleet

Seven years ago, the city of Austin set an ambitious goal: make its fleet of city-owned cars go "carbon-neutral" by 2020.

It was part of a major climate change initiative passed by the City Council, which focused on ways the city could cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

But the city has struggled to achieve its lofty goal. Austin spent nearly $33 million on more than 500 new vehicles this fiscal year, but only bought seven hybrid or electric vehicles, according to an analysis by the American-Statesman. The rest were mostly sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, or heavy duty construction or utility trucks, though many are capable of running on cleaner-burning alternative fuels.

The city's effort to reduce its contribution to climate change from its fleet of 5,372 fuel-burning vehicles is clashing against the reality of a vehicle manufacturing industry that still produces primarily gasoline-powered cars and trucks, and city departments that are reluctant to trade in an SUV or truck for a compact, gas-sipping Toyota Prius.

"It's been a slow process," said Jennifer Walls, who works in the city's fleet services department. "We can say we want all this stuff -- and if the manufacturers don't make it, then they just don't make it."

Still, the city says, it's made serious strides toward its carbon dioxide-neutral goal, pointing to the fact that in the last seven years the carbon dioxide emissions from its fleet have dropped more than 12 percent to 45,517 metric tons last year. This happened while the city's fleet grew by more than 500 vehicles.

"If you benchmarked against other cities and tried to find true baseline reductions and fleets that have gone so far, so fast in incorporating hybrids and alternative fuels, you'd be hard pressed to find one as good as Austin," said Zach Baumer, the city's climate program manager.

Bigger is better

The biggest obstacle to a greener fleet is the city itself. Performing functions such as paving asphalt, maintaining utility lines and hauling garbage require large, wide-body trucks. They don't make an all-electric utility truck -- yet.

"For certain types of vehicles, there is no choice," Baumer said.

For the city's lighter-load vehicles -- such as sedans, SUVs and trucks that make up a majority of its fleet -- Baumer prepares a yearly report studying the options for the least environmentally-damaging vehicles at the best price. But his recommendations aren't always followed.

For instance, this year Baumer suggested purchasing the Subaru Crosstrek hybrid in the small SUV class, which he determined would produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions and cost less over its lifetime than other vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.

Instead, the city went with the Chevrolet Equinox, which could cost the city $3,000 more over its lifetime than the Subaru, according to Baumer's report. So far this year, the city bought 38 Chevy Equinoxes across a smattering of city departments, such as code compliance and aviation.

Irvin Schmidt, a fleet operations manager at the city, said Austin can't switch to buying Subarus very easily.

"If we went for a completely different brand -- although the vehicle might be better environmentally -- we still have to work on it, keep it running, and we don't have the parts," Schmidt said.

The city has existing maintenance contracts for Fords, Chevrolets and Toyotas, he said.

Some departments also prefer larger SUVs that also aren't recommended by Baumer, saying they need more room for equipment.

"We make recommendations, and we do our best to convince them. But in the end, it's up to the department," Baumer said.

This fiscal year, the city bought 152 Ford Explorers, most of them for the Austin Police Department.

Sgt. Stephen Fleming said the department will primarily use them for patrol cars. The department is also using the Ford Taurus Interceptor as the discontinued Crown Victoria patrol cars age.

The Explorer "was a better match for our growing force," Fleming said. He said they could not only better accommodate police officers and their passengers but offered improved visibility at intersections.

Council Member Chris Riley said public safety concerns trump environmental ones.

"The hope is we will see new technologies within the next few years that will move us further in the direction of climate protection without sacrificing public safety," Riley said.

Flexible fuel

While the city has had modest success convincing departments to drive Priuses or the electric-powered Ford Focus, it's been more aggressive converting vehicles to "flex-fuel," which can run on cleaner-burning alternative fuels.

The two main alternative fuel types the city offers are E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent regular gasoline, or B20, which is 20 percent biodiesel blended with petro-diesel, though the city has stopped providing biodiesel temporarily. The city also has some vehicles powered by propane, which also emits fewer greenhouse gases.

But there's no way to force the drivers of these vehicles to use these fuels over regular gasoline. Drivers of city vehicles have to use city-owned refueling stations. There are more than 40 of these stations throughout the city, but only four stations have E85.

Their efforts are yielding some success: the city has gone from 8 percent of its fuel usage coming from alternative fuels in 2007 to 42 percent last fiscal year, though it had fallen from a high of 53 percent in 2012.

E85 is considered better for the environment than regular gasoline because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by at least 20 percent. However, it doesn't satisfy the city's goal because it still emits carbon dioxide.

"It may be impossible to get to zero," Baumer acknowledges, which is why the city will likely use a carbon-emission accounting trick to meet that 2020 goal. Baumer said the city will likely buy carbon credits or offsets for the carbon dioxide produced in that year.

Riley said he hopes these credits will support local projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Austin.

He said the aggressive goals make sense, though the city can never be truly carbon-free.

"Short of having someone standing at the city limits, stopping anyone from driving a car in, we'll likely always have emissions," he said. "If we already are going to be carbon-neutral, we'll always have to have some kind of offset. But that isn't a bad thing."


City of Austin Alternative Fuel Use

2007: 388,866 gallons, or 8 percent of total fuel use

2008: 866,961 gallons, or 17.6 percent of total fuel use

2009: 1,323,342 gallons, or 26.8 percent of total fuel use

2010: 1,774,709 gallons, or 35.8 percent of total fuel use

2011: 2,472,129 gallons, or 48.8 percent of total fuel use

2012: 2,639,179 gallons, or 52.8 percent of total fuel use

2013: 2,160,137 gallons, or 42.3 percent of total fuel use

Austin American-Statesman