Clean Cities Hopes to Promote Alternative Fuel Vehicle Use in West Michigan

I had the opportunity to join a group of local activists and stakeholders  in Grand Rapids for the West Michigan Clean Cities 2011 Kick Off Meeting, part of an effort to bring together like-minded groups in an effort to develop a Clean Cities initiative in West Michigan.

Clean Cities is a network of coalitions in 87 different locations across the country, working to reduce petroleum use by bringing together public and private fleets, alternative fuel providers, and alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) providers.  The Michigan Clean Energy Coalition is looking to start up a franchise of this U.S. Department of Energy program in West Michigan.  Clean Cities is already in Ann Arbor and the Detroit Area.

“The federal government is pushing to divert money from oil companies to alternative vehicle spending,” said Kevin Bush, a Program Manager for Michigan’s Clean Energy Coalition and leader of the West Michigan Clean Cities initiative. “We can help you get that money.”

Current programs Clean Cities is working on include E-85 Infrastructure, the I-75 Green Corridor, Ethanol Blender Pumps, MI Green Fleets, and Clean DIRRT 2.0.  Bush said that through tax incentives and grants, AFVs are more affordable and economically feasible for companies and organizations. But for many corporations, the hassle of getting a grant outweighs their desire to invest in alternative fuels for their fleets.  This is where Clean Cities comes in, as Bush explained, “We know everything grant-related for AFVs and alternative fuel technology.”

After Bush, Roush CleanTech representatives Melissa Cox and Robert Little took the stage.  Roush is a major advocate for propane autogas (also known as liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG).  It creates petroleum-fueled vehicles and can outfit regular vehicles with propane tanks.  Benefits of propane include a 24% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 90% of stocks produced in U.S., and prices 40% less than gasoline.

“Infrastructure for propane pumps costs almost nothing,” said Little. “With a fueling contract, installing propane pumps for your fleet is basically covered.”

In order for petroleum displacement to occur, cooperation is needed between organizations, vendors, and suppliers.  Fortunately, the people who gathered at Grand Rapids Public Library Main Brach on February 16 helped start this dialogue.  A spectrum of attendants, from a General Motors representative, to a local school district transportation representative, to various environmental groups, showed that the cooperation and involvement needed from all these organizations has already started.

“Clean Cities is here to tie together existing initiatives and aid dialogue,” Bush said.

To make progress in eliminating petroleum use, more people need to be educated.  One member at the meeting voiced concern that within environmentally-minded organizations there is already AFV awareness, but what about the general public?  The meeting was held upstairs in the public library, but what about the moms and kids, students, and city residents browsing the bookshelves below?  These people may know little about the availability, benefits, or costs of alternative fuels.  More alternative fuel advertising and education needs to be done to reach everyone.

The knowledge base for alternative fuels is already growing.  Clean Cities tracks and promotes the availability of alternative fuel stations.  An OnStar system can tell drivers where to pull over to fill up on alternative fuels, as well as iPhone applications.

A solid infrastructure for AFVs is another key for lasting petroleum displacement success.  You want to buy a propane-run vehicle? Great. But you need to know where to refuel so you don’t get stuck on empty miles from home.  The stations need to be in place for refueling before people start buying AFVs.  Currently Grand Rapids is home to one Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) station and 45 alternative fuel stations in the greater metropolitan area (including CNG, E85 Ethanol, Biodiesel, Propane, Liquefied Natural Gas, or Electric Charging Stations).  The more widespread these stations become, the more use alternative fuels will get.

A smattering of people out there is interested enough to invest in AFVs.  If others start seeing the infrastructure, the signs for alternative fueling or charging stations, then they will become more comfortable with the idea of alternative fuels.  Learning more about how to use less petroleum and reduce emissions here.

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