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Fleets are where it’s at: China utilities should study PGE’s electric vehicle purchase program

July 23, 2012

China’s recently-released plan to promote fuel efficient and (mainly) battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles touches on fleets, but sadly doesn’t do much to address this most important segment for widespread electrification. Perhaps some of the two dozen cities Beijing designated as experimental sites for public fleet electrification are making huge efforts in that direction, but I doubt it.  They certainly weren’t not long ago.

Beijing (by this I mean China’s central government) would do well to pay more attention to fleets, and to promote more cross-industry cooperation of the kind I found here in the U.S. when I talked to Dave Meisel, director of transportation for Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E.   As one of the largest public utilities in the U.S., PG&E has a huge fleet—some 14,000 vehicles.  That’s a pretty big Petri dish for testing out alternative fuel technologies, and PG&E has been doing that for years, says Meisel, who  says he has been in the business for 35 years.   The utility has gotten much more active in testing alternative fuel technology vehicles in the last four or five years, he says, which makes sense because finding replacements for gasoline as a vehicle fuel has become a much hotter topic in the last four or five years.

PG&E isn’t doing this out of the goodness of its heart.  Partly, it is compelled by California law to have a certain percentage of low-emission vehicles in its fleet. But PG&E is also looking to save money.  Isn’t PG&E a bit special because it has a huge fleet so small savings can equal a large amount? I asked Meisel.  (Sort of like a small percentage of the Chinese population can still equal a big market.)  He said:  “(Alt-fuel vehicles) makes sense everywhere but the dollars are much bigger for PG&E because of our fleet size. We actually do (the alt-fuel vehicles) because they make business sense.  Sometimes they make sense because you are improving your carbon footprint, sometimes they save money.”   Some examples of money-saving later in this blog.

As you might expect, PG&E is trying out various kinds of electrified vehicles.  It has a varying numbers of vehicles in its fleet from a wide range of companies including VIA Motors (extended range electric vehicles), Efficient Drivetrains Inc. (PHEVs) , and Quantum Technologies (multiple kinds of electric drivetrains and fuels) .  PG&E also works with battery makers such as A123 and Dow Kokam and with OEs such as General Motors on development.    What I found unique and useful for not just PG&E and the companies it works with,  but also eventually for consumers of alt fuel vehicles, is that PG&E influences the design of the vehicles so that they better meet its needs.  That is why VIA Motors extended-range Chevy Silverado pickups come with an optional on-board inverter that can be used in place of an external generator.  PG&E suggested VIA add that feature, says Meisel.  At around $79,000 per truck (“Anticipated selling price is $79,000 at volume” says the VIA website), the EREVs are pricey.  But the ability to one day use a fleet of them to light up a neighborhood that has lost power makes that price acceptable, says Meisel.  Utilities are judged by their ability to provide continuous service, he says, and this could contribute to that that ability.   Having input from a potential future customer helps both parties out, adds Meisel.  “Sometimes when you are a pickup truck manufacturer you look at it purely from your perspective. I have a different perspective,” he says.  “I ask them if it can do things that would help us out, have conversations about how to make it a good deal for everybody.”  Since other utilities have the same needs as PG&E, this also helps create a market for the vehicles, says Meisel.

The money for these projects comes from different sources.  Sometimes the technology company pays for the modification, says Meisel.  Sometimes PG&E chips in.  Sometimes there is government money involved.  For example, PG&E is working with Peterbilt Motors Co. (think really really big trucks) on a Class 7 extended range electric truck.  PG&E contributed grant money from the California Energy Commission to the project.

When I spoke with him Meisel has just returned from Toronto, where he met with General Motors (Meisel is on an advisory board) about GM’s b-fuel compressed natural gas Chevy Silverado and GMC extended cab pickups.  Meisel is excited about this technology.  Though CNG is cheaper to use than gasoline, the re-fueling infrastructure is not as extensive.  “Straight CNG is pretty hard for us,” he says.  But the 17 gallons of CNG is enough for PG&E’s trucks to get pretty much anywhere they need to, he says.  After that, they can run on widely-available gasoline.  The bi-fuel option adds $11,000 to the price, says Meisel, but he figures the payback period won’t be that long with the cost of gas these days.  GM is taking orders now for 2014 delivery.

PG&E is electrifying its entire fleet of bucket trucks (as the name suggests, those are the trucks with those bucket-like lifts that a person stands in to repair electric lines and the like), says Meisel.  He didn’t go into detail about what kind of electrification (or rather I didn’t ask) though he did say PG&E is working with several companies.  The payback period for the $24,000 conversion cost is only 3.5 years, says Meisel.  “In the old version we would idle a vehicle 7-8 hours a day. In the new version it is zero,” he says.   There’s also a substantial environmental benefit, I couldn’t help thinking….

How big is his budget for alt-fuel vehicles? I asked Meisel.  PG&E doesn’t have a budget just for alt-fuel vehicles, he says.  “What we do is we have a vehicle acquisition budget,” he says.   “We know we are going to add, delete, buy sell vehicles.” Right now, he seems pretty high on VIA, or companies with similar technology.    “We really like the idea of an extended range electric a lot, we like the idea of exportable power, we are spending a lot of time on that,” says Meisel.

If you don’t have a bi-fuel pickup or an extended –range EV with exportable power, however, don’t despair.    Just keep track of where Meisel is spending his time. He speaks at about 100 events a year, says Meisel.  People approach him about new technologies at these events all the time, or the technology is on display and PG&E likes it.

Now, I must return to China’s situation.  Are China Southern Grid and State Grid guys hanging out at various alt-fuel vehicle events to find promising new technologies for their fleets?  I can only hope so.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Younger Colt permalink
    July 23, 2012 4:14 am

    Quite interesting, PGE’s approach to electricity in their vehicles, some 14000 strong.
    Where is Smith in this equation?

    • July 23, 2012 3:22 pm

      Well, the whole 14,000 won’t be converted! PG&E may be working with Smith but Dave didn’t mention it. Fedex is working with Smith, howwever. I interviewed Bryan Hansel, CEO of Smith, a few days okay. Will be posting re: Smith’s JV with Wanxiang soon.

      • Jim Larson permalink
        August 4, 2012 12:27 am

        PG&E has 12 Smith (flatbed, boom truck and natural gas service bodies) and 6 Navistar ecostar vans, in trial operation. The top speed under load of these platforms (~50 mph) make them unsuitable for freeway driving and limits the extent they can be deployed. PG&E’s operational experience and collaboration will improve future offerings from Smith.

      • August 4, 2012 12:33 am

        Ahh, thanks for that info. Dave did mention PG&E was working with Navistar.

  2. Hamilton Gayden permalink
    July 23, 2012 6:49 am

    Hey Alysha,
    counter intuitively, Meisel’s sidebar observation regarding CNG refueling infrastructure struck a hopeful note for me.

    In the past 3 months I’ve come across CNG taxis in Changchun, Xi’an and Wuhan. The Changchun driver obliged by refueling en route: although the equipment looked it was thrown together from old Home Depot parts, it worked, nobody got hurt (while I was there, at least!) – and quite a few taxis and freight-haulers queued up behind us.

    The Xi’an and Changchun cab drivers independently recapped the basic economics: 6 month payback for the CNG conversion, which both paid out of pocket. Indeed, the Changchun driver stated that he wouldn’t turn a profit at current gasoline prices; Xi’an apparently now only issues taxi licenses to CNG vehicles.

    My big takeaway from these CNG experiences: given that taxis are more or less single-brand in most major Chinese cities (Hyundai in Beijing, Shanghai VW in Shanghai, Citroen in Wuhan, etc), it wouldn’t be too big a stretch for one or two wannabee “green cities” with a captive OEM and taxi fleet, to build a “better place” style battery swapping infrastructure (maybe as a stepping stone toward quick-charge stations).

    Looking forward to BYD e6 taxi investigation results – maybe even this week.

    • July 23, 2012 3:18 pm

      Hey Hamilton,
      That is interesting. You know of course that Shanghi’s taxi fleet has long been primarily (or at least there are a lot of them) LPG, right? As for the fleets being mainly one-brand–true, but that is changing slowing because the central government ordered the preferential policies that naturally applied to the local brand to end. So now I see Hyundai taxis in SH, etc. Re: Better Place. I have been talking to BP recently. China project seems to be moving forward slowly. The buy in really must be from the utility, not just the municipal government and automaker. And I don’t think automakers in China have been too enthusiastic. Bottom line: It takes a village to set up a battery swapping system. Even BP admits it will be a system for specific locales rather than nationwide.

      The 6 month payback for CNG is really compelling. Wonder what is preventing it from becoming more widespread?


  3. January 31, 2013 4:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! As a business owner myself, I’m always on the lookout for tools and technologies my company can utilize that will help save money and generate revenue. I currently use a privately held fleet vehicles management services company. Someone did mention to me that it may be more beneficial to switch to trucks that run on natural gas as opposed to gasoline-fueled fleet trucks. Someone else mentioned using electric trucks instead. There are a lot of benefits to using electric trucks and I appreciate you taking the time to write this and provide the information that you did.

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