Arizona’s spending on alternative fuels for its vehicle fleet continues to be relatively small even though the fleet is almost entirely capable of using such fuels.
Spending on alternative fuels by the state’s six largest agencies peaked in 2008 at approximately 6 percent of total fuel spending, but declined during the recession to 1.5 percent in 2012. In 2013, 2.7 percent of fuel spending went to alternative sources, according to the report.
This is even though nearly 80 percent of light duty vehicles — cars that weigh less than 8,500 pounds — in the state fleet are able to use alternative fuels, according to an annual report issued by the Arizona Department of Administration. Of those, the majority — 86.4 percent — are ethanol (E85) capable.
The relatively low use of alternative fuels could be tied to cost or infrastructure.
Mandates on the purchase of automobiles capable of using alternative fuels stretch back to the 1990s, when the state fleet was required to have 40 percent of light duty vehicles ready for alternative fuels by the end of 1995. Certain vehicles — including police cars and ambulances — are exempt from the rule.
But while more than 90 percent of light duty vehicles purchased since 2010 can use alternative fuels, only a low percentage of state fleet fuel spending is on alternative fuel itself.
Ethanol purchases made up the majority of that amount. The state’s five largest agencies used about 58 gallons of E85 per capable vehicle in 2013, down from approximately 94 gallons in 2008.
Steve Perica, state motor vehicle alternative fuel coordinator, said the state was doing its best to comply with the purchase mandate and use alternative fuels when possible, but that ethanol use fluctuates with the market.
“I think a lot of it boils down to how much of a cost basis difference there is between the E85 and unleaded,” Perica said. “If there’s an extreme difference in the price then folks are going to be disinclined to spend additional resources on the fuel.”
Colleen Crowninshield, coordinator for the Tucson Clean Cities Coalition, said the problem is not cost, but that the fleet doesn’t take advantage of current and potential infrastructure.
“We have a lot of station owners willing to build stations for that fleet use if the fleet agrees to use that fuel to make it worth their while to build the stations,” she said. “We cannot get state fleet managers to say, ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’”
According to the state fleet’s website, there are 13 alternative fuel stations that accept the state’s Voyager fuel card. Eight are ethanol and five offer compressed natural gas. Of the ethanol stations, there are five in Tucson, two in Sierra Vista and one in Phoenix.
Meanwhile, there are more than 20 other ethanol fueling stations spread across the state.
Perica said the problem of whether alternative fuel vehicles will inspire the construction of more infrastructure is a “chicken and the egg scenario.”
“If we buy the vehicles will the infrastructure come? And conversely, if we build the infrastructure, will people buy the vehicles? I think it’s a combination of both,” Perica said.
He said the state chose ethanol because of the more widespread infrastructure for that fuel. But even though the number of ethanol stations is high compared to other options, some areas in the state are lacking, which limits the range of drivers.
Crowninshield said the idea that there aren’t enough alternative fuel stations in the state is a “common misconception.”
“We have gas station owners saying yes we’ll make it accessible to them, but then we have a fleet that is managed all across the state in various locations.” she said. “It’s hard for them to be able to connect with all those areas that the fleets are at, so it’s easier for them to stay status quo.”
Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon chapter, said one of the largest problems with the state’s alternative fuel program is that there is no way to ensure people will actually use the fuel, which holds it back from making a larger impact.
“I think that most of the vehicles that they’re using are capable of using both, so they likely go with whatever is cheaper,” Bahr said.
Under the Energy Policy Act, federal fleets are required to use alternative fuel if it is near their location, but state fleets have no similar mandate, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.
Bahr said the state government should evaluate existing programs with the aim of improving them.
“Rather than dragging its feet and bringing up the tail end on everything, our state government ought to be leading and looking for ways to be more efficient, including more fuel efficient,” Bahr said.