Campus looks to alternative vehicles and fuels
The Garage and Car Pool in Facilities and Services dispenses 300,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline and 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year for the 216 passenger vehicles and 308 service vehicles in the campus fleets as well as hundreds of departmentally owned vehicles and equipment. With gas and diesel prices hovering around $4 a gallon – and predicted to hit the $5 or $6 mark by the end of the calendar year – fuel economy has become a vital concern.
“I’ve been involved in this operation since 1992 or 1993, and we’ve never actually had to post fuel prices at our gas pumps,” said Pete Varney, associate director of the Garage and Car Pool. “No one really cared. We now post our fuel prices because we’ve had so many questions.”
Retail fuel prices escalated so dramatically during May that the Car Pool had to increase its fuel surcharges to units using the vehicles by 2 cents per gallon for sedans and 3 cents per gallon for larger vehicles. The fuel surcharges are adjusted monthly based upon the average retail price for fuel during the prior month.
“Honestly, I’m afraid that trend is going to continue,” Varney said. “I haven’t seen the prices reflected in reduced mileage or travel yet, but I think we’re at the tipping point where it’s going to start affecting people. Departments may have to start consolidating trips or canceling trips, perhaps.”
But even before gas prices soared this spring, the Garage and Car Pool was exploring fuel-efficient and eco-friendly vehicles.
Two e-ride utility trucks recently were added to the service fleet. Powered by nine eight-volt batteries, the all-electric trucks produce none of the ozone-depleting emissions of gas-powered trucks and don’t require hazardous chemicals such as antifreeze, oil and other liquids.
All-electric vehicles aren’t a new concept for the Car Pool, which has had eight Global Electric Motorcars – or GEMs – in its fleet since 2004. However, the e-ride trucks are designed specifically for utility tasks, which the GEMs are not, and can haul about 1,200 pounds of cargo.
For the past few months, Campus Mail, the Paint Shop, the Locksmith Shop and several other units have been test driving eight Mini Trucks from several different manufacturers to gauge their suitability and durability as service vehicles. Although the Mini Trucks are gas-powered, they have smaller engines than full-size utility trucks and offer better fuel economy. Some of them are getting gas mileage in the 20-30 miles per gallon range, Varney said. “It’s a dramatic improvement over large service vehicles that may only get 8 mpg in stop-and-go traffic.”
Like the GEMs, the e-ride vehicles and Mini Trucks have a top speed of 25 mph, which, coincidentally, is the speed limit in the University District.
While the GEMs and the Mini Trucks are suitable for many uses, not all vehicles in the campus fleets can be downsized, since some operations require heavy-duty vehicles that can transport farm equipment or construction materials, for example.
The Car Pool ordered three Ford Escape hybrid sport utility vehicles in late November; Varney expects them to arrive in late August or early September. Additionally, the campus recently issued a request for proposals to purchase 24 hybrid sedans for the passenger fleet. But with rising gas prices sparking an unprecedented demand for hybrid vehicles among consumers, auto manufacturers may have less incentive to sell their hybrids to the university, Varney said.
Some vehicles in the campus fleet have been switched to E85, a biofuel composed of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent unleaded gas, to compare the performance and cost-effectiveness of E85 powered vehicles and gas-powered vehicles. With prices for E85 ranging up to 37 percent less than gas nationally now, the cost differential is enough to offset E85’s reduction in fuel economy and perhaps render it a viable alternative fuel for some vehicles. Students provided funds for a tank and a dispenser for the E85.
A new fuel system that interfaces with modules inside 50-60 vehicles in the service fleet is enabling F&S to download by wireless connection detailed data about each vehicle’s fuel consumption and the amount of time the engine spends idling. Foremen have been asked to work with their crews to reduce the amount of time that service vehicles spend idling whenever possible to help conserve fuel.
According to a state law enacted in January 2007, all passenger cars purchased with state funds on or after the law’s effective date must be flex-fuel vehicles, which the law defines as being capable of operating on alternative fuels such as E85 as well as gas, or they must be fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles. Additionally, new diesel vehicles must be certified by the manufacturer to run on biodiesel, also called “B20,” fuel.
Commuters like Rene Dunnam, a business manager for the department of physics, are feeling the pain as gas pumps guzzle ever-growing portions of their take-home pay. Dunnam said that fuel costs for her and her husband, Jeff, have about doubled in recent months, and that they currently spend about $600 a month on gas to commute separately from their home near Gibson City to her job on campus and his job in Farmer City. Even though they drive fairly fuel-efficient vehicles, escalating fuel prices are taking a toll on their budget.
Kimber Blum, who is the associate director for identity assurance technology in the iCard Programs Office, estimated that she spends $17 per day for her and her son, Jon, a summer intern on campus, to commute from Mattoon. Although the Ford 500 they drive gets about 25 miles per gallon, Blum said she’s considering trading it for a more fuel-efficient model. She also plans to commute by Amtrak when possible; buying tickets in 10-packs would cut her commuting costs to $10 a day.
Dunnam and Blum also have posted notices on the Web site eRideShare.com, a free site that helps travelers connect with other people so they can share rides and expenses.
Donna Guzy, an administrative secretary and a co-worker of Dunnam, now carpools with two other employees from the St. Joseph area, adjusting her work schedule to accommodate theirs, and estimates she saves at least $80 a month on gas and another $20 by bringing her lunch more often.
“You have to adjust how you run errands, too,” Guzy said. “There’s a way of working it; you just have to think it through.”
High gas prices have prompted Dunnam to be more organized, keeping a list and doing as many errands as she can on her way home or on her lunch hour, reducing the number of trips she and her husband make to Champaign on the weekends.
“I used to go out to lunch four or five days a week,” Dunnam said. Now, she brings her lunch nearly every day.
And if gas prices continue their upward trend?
“I don’t have any place else to cut back,” Dunnam said.
Gas prices in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day prompted Guzy and her family to forgo a trip to Ohio for a grandnephew’s graduation.
Blum said that her annual trip to Alaska with her partner, Gail, and other family members this summer probably will cost $4,000 for fuel alone, a two-fold increase over their first trip two years ago. “It will be really tough to do it again this year,” Blum said.
Over a 10-week period, they will drive and tow a camper, selling handmade jewelry at markets and festivals, and will be participating in 15 shows instead of their usual three or four.
To save a few pennies at the pump, Dunnam subscribes to a text-messaging alert system that notifies her of impending price changes at her favorite gas station, and she circulates those alerts to co-workers.
Dunnam, who worked for a federal agency for 24 years before joining the UI’s staff eight years ago, said one of the perks at her previous job was a compressed work week that allowed employees to work 80 hours over a nine-day period and have an extra day off every two weeks. “That’s an option I’d really like to see them employ on campus,” Dunnam said, and added that employees with whom she discussed the idea were enthusiastic about it.
Campus officials said that currently there are no plans for a campuswide change to four-day work weeks. However, some units offer flexible work schedules and opportunities for faculty and staff members to work from home on occasion.
As rising fuel prices drive more motorists into hybrid and fuel-efficient vehicles, one commuter who’s way ahead of the pack is TWIKE owner Matt Childress. A research programmer in the Office of the Chancellor, Childress commutes from his home in southwest Champaign to campus in his TWIKE, a Swiss-designed, German-built human-electric hybrid vehicle that uses no gas.
The TWIKE, an acronym for “twin bikes,” is a three-wheeled, two-seater vehicle constructed of two side-by-side recumbent bicycles powered by pedaling and by nickel-cadmium batteries. The batteries can be recharged in less than two hours using a standard household outlet. Regenerative anti-lock brakes also capture energy from deceleration. Childress’ 10-year-old TWIKE, which is registered as a motorcycle and is one of about two dozen TWIKEs in the U.S., can travel 35-45 miles per charge with a top speed of 50-55 miles per hour.
A zero-point emissions vehicle, the TWIKE is eco-friendly, compact and easy to park, and pedaling helps Childress, an avid bicyclist, keep in shape.
Childress said he isn’t feeling smug though as he watches other motorists’ struggles with high fuel costs and sees them staring longingly at his TWIKE. “I just feel really sad for them, because even if they want to buy an electric vehicle, they’re really hard to come by,” Childress said.
To learn more about alternative fuels, the Environmental Protection Agency’s revised gas-mileage estimates for various vehicles and tax incentives for hybrid vehicles, visit t<>acronymhe U.S. Department of Energy’s Web site.
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