Major US city opts for electric, hybrid fleet

RICK CALLAHAN
Last updated 11:48 13/12/2012

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Indianapolis is aiming to become the first major US city to replace its entire fleet with environmentally friendly vehicles, in a move the mayor said is aimed at reducing the nation's reliance on foreign oil.

Mayor Greg Ballard signed an executive order early today (NZ time) requiring the city to replace its nearly 500 non-police sedans with electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. The city also will work with the private sector to phase in snow plows, fire trucks and other heavy vehicles that run on compressed natural gas, and will ask automakers to develop a plug-in hybrid police car.

New vehicles would be purchased as older ones are retired, and the city hopes to completely swap out its current 3100-vehicle fleet by 2025.

Ballard, a Republican and a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the Persian Gulf War, said he hopes the switch helps reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil, which he said "exacts an enormous cost financially and in terms of strategic leverage." Ballard, who took office in 2008, said he's been considering the switch for years and that technological advances have now made it possible.

"Our oil dependence in some cases places the fruits of our labor into the hands of dictators united against the people of the United States," he said. He said the environmental benefits of the switch are secondary.

City officials didn't specify how much the conversion would cost, but Ballard said taxpayers could save US$12,000 (NZ$14,200) over the 10-year lifespan of each new electric and plug-in hybrid, even though those vehicles currently cost more than the petrol-powered sedans they'll replace.

Philip Reed, the senior consumer advice editor for auto website Edmunds.com, said that although he doesn't know how the city reached its calculation, its projected cost-savings are "certainly possible," given the lower fuel and maintenance costs of electrics and hybrids. He said it generally takes five to 10 years for those savings to offset the vehicles' roughly 20 per cent higher sticker prices, but that powering an electric-only vehicle can cost up to 10 times less.

"It's going to be a pleasant surprise for the taxpayers," Reed said, adding that the city's shift will be aided financially by a federal tax credit of up to US$7500 per vehicle.

Indianapolis' fleet includes 470 non-police sedans, nearly 2000 police vehicles, 120 fire trucks and 200 snow plows and garage trucks. The city also operates nearly 400 pick-up trucks and sport-utilities vehicles, total, as well as dozens of generators, trailers and motorcycles.

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Ballard's spokesman, Marc Lotter, said that while many cities now have electric, hybrid or natural gas vehicles, city officials and the US Conference of Mayors researched the issue and found that no other major US city has announced plans to convert its entire fleet.

Indianapolis currently has 120 petrol-electric hybrids, but no electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids.

Lotter said the city buys about 50 non-police vehicles every year. He said Indianapolis does not expect to need additional funding to pay for the upgrades in the years ahead because of the projected savings the cars will bring.

Lotter said the city buys cars through a system in which contracts are competitively bid by dealers and automakers lock in prices and models to choose from. He said Indianapolis is on good financial ground for embarking on the fleet switch-over, with its more than $1 billion 2013 budget projected to see a relatively small deficit of between US$15 million and US$30 million.

Energy Savings Network, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that promotes the use of clean technology, provided the city with technical and financial advice through its Project Plug-In electric vehicle initiative, said ESN chief executive Paul Mitchell.

Project Plug-In also used $6.4 million in grants from the Department of Energy to set up 200 charging stations around central Indiana, Mitchell said. The group was working with city officials to develop alternative methods of financing the new vehicles, such as leasing, to lower the initial cost, he said.

- AP

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