Ocean State Clean Cities Pushes Alternative Fuels

By JOHN PANTALONE/ecoRI News contributor

KINGSTON, R.I. — Even if you don’t think burning petroleum is melting the polar ice cap, there are plenty of good reasons to join the movement to reduce fossil-fuel use, including national security and cleaner air, to name just a few.

The Ocean State Clean Cities Coalition stands on the front lines of the effort to lower Rhode Island’s carbon footprint, by encouraging the use of renewable energy, new technologies and increased mass transit. Based at the University of Rhode Island’s Outreach Center, the program has been operating since 1998, about five years after the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) established Clean Cities programs through the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Following an inactive period, Ocean State Clean Cities has enjoyed a revival since 2008, when its current director, Wendy Lucht, took over.

After grinding away at building a coalition that now includes more than 50 stakeholders across fuel and transportation businesses and industries, environmental groups, and federal and state agencies, Ocean State Clean Cities has begun to show significant progress. In large part because of the program’s efforts, Rhode Island has installed 50 electric-vehicle charging stations throughout the state.

Rhode Island also has joined with several other states in pledges to put 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road in the next 12 years. Gov. Lincoln Chafee also has submitted plans to transition the state’s fleet to alternative-fuel vehicles by using Federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) money to pay for the cost difference between an alternative-fuel vehicle and a comparably sized gasoline-powered car.

“When I came here in 2008, the organization had become inactive,” Lucht said. “Most of the stakeholders weren’t in the same positions they held when they joined, and the board was dormant. It took a while to build things back up.”

Ocean State Clean Cities attempts to convince municipal officials and private vehicle fleet owners to convert to alternative fuels and vehicles. This is part of the national strategy by DOE, which has identified its goal as reducing petroleum use by 2.5 billion gallons a year through 2020 by encouraging mass transit, smarter driving habits, and embrace fuel-saving techniques and technologies. DOE has estimated that its Clean Cities programs have saved 5 billion gallons of oil since 1993, with the most significant reductions occurring during the past five years.

U.S. Clean Cities says it has some 18,000 stakeholders in more than 100 coalitions nationwide. According to its website, it “has funded more than 500 transportation projects nationwide and distributed $377 million in project awards, which have leveraged an additional $740 million in matching funds and in-kind contributions from other organizations in the public and private sectors.”

Lucht said Ocean State Clean Cities has focused on providing education on alternative fuels and petroleum reduction in transportation fleets, and has worked with state officials on policy issues.

“We often find that we’re educating fleet owners about alternative fuels and federal policies and how they relate to Rhode Island,” she said. “There’s no question that economics is the driving force behind the movement for alternative vehicles and fuels.”

Lucht noted that Clean Cities tries to deal with obstacles to conversion, including range anxiety about non-gas-powered vehicles, technological phobia, resistance to change and safety concerns. “It’s our job to educate people so we can get past these obstacles,” she said.

While it pushes the use of electric and hybrid vehicles, and biodiesel and propane alternatives to gasoline, Lucht said Clean Cities encounters complications with such things as getting the state to convert Department of Transportation vehicles to biodiesel.

“It’s complicated because biodiesel requires winter additives, and you always have issues with winter temperatures changing,” she said. “Still, any conversion we can get helps the overall situation.”

Clean Cities encourages technological development to address issues such as idling, which occurs because vehicle batteries lose power when they’re not running. So, for instance, a fuel-delivery truck or a refrigeration truck burns a great deal of fuel while idling, which is costly and adds to air pollution. Technology companies, such as Warwick-based eNow Inc., are coming up with various technologies like solar systems for battery recharging to power truck liftgates, refrigeration, lighting and equipment monitoring.

Rhode Island’s 50 electric charging stations have been the biggest success so far for Ocean State Clean Cities, according to Lucht. The so-called “Top 50 Project” was initiated in discussions with the former director of URI’s Outreach Center, Marion Gold, who began a tenure as commissioner of the state Office of Energy Resources (OER) in August 2012.

“We still had federal stimulus money left over, and we knew transportation was an area that needed attention,” Gold said.

“We had charging stations on our agenda and had been researching locations,” Lucht said about the evolution of the project. “Marion saw this as a good opportunity to move forward with it.”

It took time to identify sites, including many at businesses and shopping centers, and 14 on state property, which Gold said were the most difficult to arrange. Business owners who host charging stations agreed to absorb the electricity costs for three years, and the state is engaged in a one-year pilot program to track use and cost.

"It takes a strong public-private partnership to create a clean and efficient transportation future," Gold said. “In Rhode Island, we spend over $1 billion in the transportation sector annually, primarily for petroleum products. Transitioning away from fossil fuels with this dual approach of a statewide network and transitioning the state's fleet will help the environment and it will keep more dollars in the Rhode Island economy."

Gold noted that the eastern seaboard states have all agreed to transition vehicle fleets to alternatives, in part because those states spend $77 billion on transportation fuels, most of which leaves the region. The New England states also agreed last December on an initiative to increase renewable energy and infrastructure via the New England States Committee on Electricity.

While such gains are encouraging, Lucht said regulatory policy and infrastructure remain significant issues. If drivers use less gas, that means less tax revenue, so how would the state make up the difference, especially in respect to maintaining transportation infrastructure?

“We will have to figure out how to compensate if less gas used is used,” Lucht said. “Who will pay for infrastructure is a big question?”

Editor's note: John Pantalone is assistant professor and chair of the Department of Journalism at the University of Rhode Island’s Harrington School of Communication and Media. This story was produced as part of a Department of Journalism project focused on environmental and energy reporting.