Michigan offers funds for alternative energy vehicles

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By KYLE DAVIDSON
Capital News Service 

LANSING — Michigan is spending $30 million to help public companies and private businesses buy low-emission freight trucks, buses, tugboats and cargo handling equipment.

Beneficiaries of the program can choose electric, alternative fuel or new diesel models, said Nick Assendelft, a public information officer for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. 

The first round of funding will provide $16 million to replace outdated freight trucks and buses with new models, with an announcement of grant winners expected in June. At least half of that is earmarked for electric vehicles.

The department plans to accept proposals for a second round of grants on June 22. 

“It’s really important for air cleanliness. It’s important for carbon neutrality. It fits into the MI Healthy Climate Plan that the governor has announced,” Assendelft said.

Every time someone takes a vehicle that burns fossil fuels off the roads, it has a positive impact on people who live and work along the routes where those vehicles are used, he said.  

The money comes from the 2017 Volkswagen settlement fund, which awarded Michigan $64.8 million as part of a national settlement of the car company’s Clean Air Act violations. The fund supports projects that reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, maximize air quality and increase the use of alternative fuel vehicles.

Later rounds of funding will include opportunities to replace Great Lakes tug and ferry boats, airport ground support equipment, port cargo handling equipment and forklifts. 

These types of vehicles were targeted based on location, Assendelft said. 

“You’re going to find them in industrial parks, you’re going to find them at an airport where you’ve got a lot of them. A lot of these vehicles might (run on) internal combustion, and it’s creating dirtier air in a concentrated area,” he said.

Areas with greater vehicle traffic have greater concentrations of air pollutants, and the grants could reduce them, Assendelft said. 

Clean fuel advocates support funding for utility vehicles.

“I think it’s great that the state’s really trying to cast a wide net and do a wide variety of projects with this funding,” said Jane McCurry, the executive director of Clean Fuels Michigan, a nonprofit trade association of the state’s clean transportation industry.

While reducing emissions addresses environmental and health concerns, there’s also an important economic message, McCurry said.

“We’re the home of the automotive industry. We are the state that makes automotive innovation happen,” McCurry said.

“We really need to lead on this and be showing that these vehicles are fun to drive, they’re more cost-efficient and they can be researched, developed and built right here in Michigan,” she said.

Some organizations are already transitioning their fleets to alternative fuels. 

For example, over the past 11 years the Mass Transportation Authority of Flint and Genesee County has reduced its annual diesel fuel use from 1.4 million gallons to 30,000 gallons. The authority has done that by converting its fleet to run on compressed natural gas, propane and hydrogen, said Edgar Benning, the authority’s chief executive officer. 

Fueling a hydrogen bus costs about twice as much as fueling a diesel bus, Benning said. 

In return for the extra cost, a vehicle gets almost double the mileage and lower maintenance costs, Benning said.

Alternative fuel vehicles make up 95% of the authority’s fleet, which provides fixed-route service, along with services for seniors and people with disabilities. 

The authority also has about 200 cars for nonemergency medical transportation. It’s working to switch the cars to alternative fuel models, Benning said.

For some groups, the jury is still out on electric buses.

A couple of companies sell electric city buses, but they’re not suitable replacements for traditional city buses, said Matthew Carpenter, the chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

The two biggest limits to electric busing are battery capacity and funding, Carpenter said.

Transit buses leave the garage around 6 a.m. and may not come back until 11 p.m. Over a 16-hour day, the bus rarely stops, which puts a strain on the vehicle. And the current technology isn’t sufficient, especially in northern climates where the buses have heaters, Carpenter said.

The limited battery capacity means it takes about three electric buses to equal the same amount of road time as one diesel bus, Carpenter said. 

Because the program is for replacements, grant recipients must decommission vehicles. 

“When you replace the buses one for one, you’re exchanging a full-time bus for a one-third, part-time bus,” Carpenter said. 

Electric buses also cost about 50% more than diesel buses, Carpenter said.

While the vehicles aren’t currently suitable for full-time use, the technology is evolving quickly. 

“I’m sure all these things can and will be sorted out in time. The prices will come down, and when they do, I think we’re going to be very interested in the environmental benefits that they can provide to our community,” Carpenter said.

As part of monitoring project success, grantees must report on the status of their projects. 

The department may also conduct project site visits or ask recipients to fill out a survey on project effectiveness. Potential topics include the amount of vehicle use, average miles per gallon or equivalent, average costs of maintenance and any problems with the chosen technology.
Kyle Davison reports for Great Lakes Echo.