Michelle Knapik is chair of the Greater Philadelphia Clean Cities Program and director of energy policy in Philadelphia’s Municipal Energy Office. She is a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program.

Michelle Knapik wrote about her experiences at the National Clean Cities Conference, held last month in Philadelphia.

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Saturday, 12 May 2001

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.

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I tossed and turned last night, dreaming of all the details I hope will come together for this week’s alternative fuel conference. Most of my days are filled with a mix of local government energy issues, including sustainable building, renewable energy, and energy-efficient programs. This week, I have the luxury of concentrating on a single issue, although the pressure of being the local host for the 7th National Clean Cities Conference is somewhat daunting.

Although I know it is morning, I wouldn’t quite say it’s daybreak. Most people listen for the sounds of chirping birds; I listen for the cars going by my center-city row home. As I open my eyes, the glowing clock reads 5:00 a.m. I take a minute to think about my involvement in Clean Cities. It started about four years ago, when I took the position with the energy office. The city had a grant to install a compressed natural gas station to fuel city vehicles — a grant that had run into implementation problems and needed a champion to keep it alive. In looking for project support and alternative fuel information, I got involved in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program. Philadelphia, through the work of my predecessors, was the third city in the nation to join the Clean Cities program.

A propane-powered truck in the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s fleet.

I wonder how many people are unaware that natural gas, electricity, propane, biodiesel, ethanol, methanol, and hydrogen (test phase) power more than 430,000 federal, state, and local government fleets, commercial delivery fleets, utility fleets, and some privately owned vehicles. More than I can estimate at 5:10 a.m., I’m sure. I think it is important that we have a Clean Cities program to raise awareness about the use of alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) by guiding and supporting the formation of public-private partnerships at the grassroots level.

As I wait for the alarm to go off, my mind drifts to thoughts of President Bush’s proposed National Energy Policy and the legislative precursor to Clean Cities, the Energy Policy Act of 1992. Under EPACT, federal and state governments and alternative energy providers (utilities) are required to make a percentage of new vehicle purchases AFVs. I used to think the mandates would propel the industry forward, but there were plenty of loopholes to make EPACT sink into oblivion. In fact, I can’t recall a single news media outlet that has referred to EPACT during the discussions about what might guide Bush’s energy strategy.

I laugh when I think about the biggest loophole of all — mandating the purchase of AFVs without any requirement that the vehicles be powered on an alternative fuel. It has completely hampered the market development of certain dedicated fuel sources, such as vehicles that run exclusively on natural gas. But hey, isn’t it great that the big three automakers crank out millions of "flexible fuel vehicles" that can run on gasoline or ethanol? Anyone who purchases a newer Dodge van, a Ford Taurus, or other popular vehicle isn’t even aware that the vehicle can run on ethanol (which would actually be a good deal at the pumps right now). But I’m still excited about the conference.

By 8:00 a.m., I am driving a 15-passenger natural gas van to the airport to pick up part of the Brazilian contingent. This is exciting for a number of reasons. The first is that the vehicle was just donated by Ford and Jefferson Health Systems to the city’s new health-based, "Fun, Fit, and Free" initiative. This is the city’s first opportunity to combine clean transportation and health messages — the city is walking the talk with respect to its effort to build a "Fitness Friendly Climate" (the van is wrapped in decals that communicate the clean-air transportation message). The second reason is that the first passengers are three delegates from Brazil’s Energy Conservation, Renewable Energy, and CONPET Program. Having the delegation participate in the conference is a Clean Cities effort to explore the international links in developing the alternative fuels market.

During the 15-minute ride to the convention center, we talk about natural gas vehicles. The delegates are surprised the natural gas in our tank is stored at 3,600 psi. They inform me that taxis running on natural gas in Brazil typically fuel at 2,000 to 2,800 psi, which means the range on a tank of compressed natural gas is probably considerably less than that of a taxi running on gasoline — not a factor to help build the market. But I quickly remind myself how much more proactive and advanced most other countries are with respect to alternative fuels. It just may be that the international market has been the strongest force in keeping the U.S. in the alternative fuel game, and not domestic concerns about fuel supply, the environment, or clean air.

Back at the convention center, I join the conference staff and local volunteers in stuffing registration packets with last-minute updates and event information. Then my focus turns to the coordinators’ dinner. Daimler Chrysler is hosting the event and wants to display a Global Electric Motors car. Daimler Chrysler recently acquired GEM. I wonder how many alliances are created to gain market edge and how many are created to curb market developments … this fuels both my cynicism and optimism about this industry and its players.

At any rate, I hoped to park the car in front of City Hall, but City Hall is the site of a big protest tonight, so we work to showcase the vehicle at the hotel. The foot traffic here is excellent, so it turns out to be a great public display. I get to ride in the vehicle from the transport trailer to the hotel — we hum quickly and silently around the corner. Onlookers are curious and intrigued by this small urban transportation option — more converts, I hope, to "join the alternative fuels revolution."

During dinner, Daimler Chrysler plays its first alternative fuel-themed video — a long version of a TV ad for alternative fuel vehicles. Okay, the coordinators are playing with the mini-electric souvenir cars or eating, but here it is, the first major professionally produced alternative-fuel video from Daimler Chrysler — excitement and optimism surge again. I ask whether they will launch a public ad campaign. Answer: Not at this time (pessimism creeps back in). Coordinators can, however, get copies to use in local campaigns. The grassroots efforts rage on. More and more tools support the local coalitions, but the efforts are still largely under the radar screen and I am the first to ask for a copy of the video!

My mind is swimming with conference details, policy hopes, and industry questions and doubts. Today, most of the coordinators arrived (Clean Cities has 80 coalitions across the country); tomorrow, they will gather for a meeting as other industry representatives and alt fuel advocates arrive — we expect over 800 attendees. My fingers are cro
ssed.

Sunday, 13 May 2001

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.

Back to the airport to pick up the Chilean delegation. I’m showing the route to a volunteer shuttle driver who installs alternative fuel systems (primarily natural gas). I ask some probing questions about a natural-gas tank that the company has developed to extend the range of natural-gas vehicles. Historically, natural-gas and electric-powered vehicles have a shorter range on a "fill-up" compared to gasoline and diesel vehicles, so they remain at a competitive disadvantage. I’m curious as to why the major auto manufacturers are not jumping on this tank technology.

My, what clean fuel cells you have!

I find out that Ford actually turned down an opportunity to fit taxis with the new tanks, which of course fuels my concerns that American companies are not truly committed to making alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) marketable. My thoughts also turn to Taken for a Ride by Jack Doyle, one of our conference speakers. This is the definitive text on how the Big Three have wielded political power to delay the "costly" implementation of clean-air technologies. It makes me wonder what their game plan is in getting a handful of (well-hidden and rarely advertised) AFVs to the market. Are they really moving forward, or are they creating a convenient, defensive platform from which they can tell policy makers to back off of alternative fuel mandates?

I also wonder whether the local host of the conference can ask Ford that question and still keep a positive relationship with local Ford dealers, still call on Ford to sponsor local alternative fuel programs, and still call on Ford to provide alternative fuel shuttles for the conference. I am glad we were able to prod the Department of Environment into inviting controversial figures like Jack Doyle to the conference. This is a difficult market to advance when you are at times relying on corporate dollars to support local programming.

I’m also busy confirming transportation plans. I’ve worked with local shuttle providers and conference sponsors to make sure that we use nothing but alternative fuel-powered buses and shuttles to transport our conference attendees to and from off-site events. We have natural-gas-powered school buses from the Lower Merion School District, which has one of the most successful alternative-fuel school bus programs in the country. Started by local residents, the program now has more than 60 of the district’s 90 buses running John Deere natural-gas engines. Alternative fuel buses are a great answer to the recent findings about the ill health effects on children from daily rides in diesel-powered buses, with natural gas, propane, and biodiesel leading the way.

A Kronosport electric-assist quadracycle.

I’m also proud that we have a local commercial shuttle bus company, Krapfs Coaches, trying biodiesel for the first time. Another local highlight is a start-up company, Kronosport. Kronosport is developing electric-assist quadracycles (or human hybrid vehicles) for niche markets such as grounds keeping and industrial campus transportation. Other shuttles include a natural-gas Ford cutaway van, an ethanol-powered shuttle bus from Air Surrey, and a biodiesel-powered bus from the USDA, wrapped in larger-than-life soybean decals. I feel like a dispatcher at times, but I’m pleased to watch the AFV caravans serve the conference.

During the afternoon, the coordinators hold their annual meeting. This is the only forum in which the 80-plus coalition leaders gather together. DOE officials deliver national messages and objectives, such as getting a million AFVs on the road by 2010. There was some debate about how to maximize the value of the meeting to the coordinators. That is, how to let them have a voice in shaping national Clean Cities goals. I have watched the tension grow between DOE policy makers and grassroots advocates.

I think back to last year’s conference, when coordinators had all of 10 minutes to present issues and discuss local concerns, only to hear cursory DOE answers. DOE traditionally counts only highway-certified vehicles as AFVs, which, in my humble opinion, is perplexing because small urban vehicles (often low-speed) address new ways of thinking about transportation that can replace gasoline and diesel vehicles, reduce vehicle miles traveled, and reduce congestion. But this year, preparation led to a more satisfying meeting — the coordinators were surveyed in advance of the conference and the agenda was built around survey responses. Kudos to DOE for supporting this.

We have over 60 exhibitors in the expo hall setting up the equivalent of an AFV auto show — minus the showgirls, grand scale, and public interest. I’m excited that the convention center is large enough for heavy-duty vehicles to be a part of the main exhibit, unlike previous years when the host city had to find nearby outdoor space for these vehicles. Because EPACT is focused on light-duty vehicles (another policy flaw, because heavy-duty vehicles typically expend more fuel than light-duty vehicles), the relegation of heavy-duty vehicles never seemed to bother many people.

To me, it removed any expectation that heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers should be participating in the AFV market. To DOE’s credit, they have moved to raise the profile of heavy-duty AFV fleets and their potential AFV contribution, but I think thanks should go to all the local governments who realized the benefits of using alternative fuel in their fleets and implemented early heavy-duty projects. It was my personal mission to get some nontraditional heavy-duty exhibitors to the conference, with Mack Trucks, Inc., headquartered in nearby Allentown, Penn., as a prime example of what the industry can achieve. (Mack Trucks has natural-gas-powered engines for refuse haulers and recently released its first over-the-road alternative fuel application.)

This evening’s event is a Ford and PECO Energy sponsored reception at the Franklin Institute of Science. Under a large statue of Benjamin Franklin, we dine, listen to jazz, and mingle. I think about early inventors who developed electric-powered cars and rightly promoted them as cleaner and quieter than the emerging internal-combustion engines. I think about the discovery of large volumes of cheap, domestic oil and the demise of both electric and fuel cell technologies. I think the smile on Ben’s face might just mean he is amused that we are celebrating our alternative fuel "advances." I think of another conference speaker, Jim Motavalli, who wrote Forward Drive. His book provides a fascinating account of how electric and fuel cell technologies, which have sat dormant for years, are starting (maybe) to take hold as technologies to achieve cleaner air and reduce reliance on petroleum.

Monday, 14 May 2001

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.

I am at the convention center by 7:00 a.m. and am thrilled that our 20 elementary students have arrived on time (via natural-gas shuttle) to rehearse their part in the opening ceremony. Things seem to be moving smoothly, but I know tension is high because of controversy over the production of the opening video. We wanted a video that would motivate conference attendees to think positively about the state of Clean Cities and alternative fuels (especially in light of federal budget cuts that will significantly impact next year’s Clean Cities budget) and provide
coordinators with an effective outreach tool. A tall order for our small-budget video. Our production team, Visual Sound, came up with a concept that uses students in the video to talk about the benefits of alternative fuels and showcase the numbers and types of fleets that use alternative fuels. As the video concludes, our “live” students run onstage to introduce the national Clean Cities director. The audience seemed engaged — disaster number one avoided.

A natural-gas shuttle bus.

By 10:30 we are ready for our first panel session, “Who’s Driving the Future of Alternative Fuel?” I have a lot invested in this panel. It has been my contention that national Clean Cities needs to help local coordinators understand the drivers in this market. I believe it might help local coalitions identify new partnerships and better target their educational messages.

The controversy over defining this panel and its speakers replays in my mind. Some insiders, including a few Department of Energy staffers, think that alternative fuels are DOA with respect to market potential. The feeling is that alternative fuels served their purpose when they helped to spur the cleanup of traditional fuels and vehicles. I turn this argument over and over in my mind, because if I buy into it, I should announce that the conference is bogus and resign from my Clean Cities post.

What about the health industry? Yes, it cares about reduced emissions, but cars today are cleaner, so the health industry will probably not be a big driver. Wait a minute. Cars are better, but they do not provide the zero-emission benefits of some electric and fuel-cell cars, nor do they beat some of the best natural-gas and other alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs). Plus, with the continual rise in the number of vehicles on the road, even “cleaner” cars present problems.

What about political and economic drivers? It seems to me that American auto manufacturers may be left in the dust by Honda and Toyota, both with hybrid cars already on the market — and probably poised to get the first fuel-cell cars on the market. What about social pressure — could we be on the brink of seeing a new wave of consumers who are ready to reject gas-guzzling SUVs? What about technological drivers — who can build a better mousetrap? And what about the alternative fuel policies and mandates in Europe and other parts of the world — aren’t they in response to social, environmental, and economic drivers?

An alternative fuel-powered Ford Think on display.

Some argue that we are not running out of oil any time soon, and that there is no driver that can propel alternative fuels beyond a small niche market. Is the “power of incumbency” with oil that strong? Wasn’t it just a little more than 100 years ago that people said nothing would replace the horse and buggy? I tune back in to the conference in time to hear the moderator present the question, “What has to change in order for the alternative fuel market to grow?”

It is clear that the legislative tools need to change. Tom Cackette, deputy director for the California Air Resource Board, cites the success of natural-gas buses (over 50 percent of California transit fleets operate on natural gas). He adds, however, that we need clarity from public leaders. Author Jack Doyle (Taken for a Ride) cites opinion polls that indicate that the public supports investment in cleaner technologies, mandates for energy-efficient appliances, and mandates for energy-efficient cars. But the gap between supporting a principle and changing behavior can be cavernous. I think the panel provided some good food for thought — for both my optimistic and pessimistic appetites.

After lunch, Toyota announces that 10 coordinators will receive an electric RAV4 for a year — and I turn out to be one of them! Getting these vehicles into the hands of advocates seems like the right thing to do. Perhaps it will help create visible role models — the kind that can close the gap in making behavioral changes. I think we should get the 10 coordinators to make joint press statements. Others whisper in my ear that we should keep a vehicle diary that gets published throughout the year. I hope I remember to follow through on all of this!

We have all types of concurrent sessions in the afternoon — I’m relieved that most of the presentations will be posted on the Clean Cities website.

Mean, clean machine? A biodeisel-powered Hummer.

The evening reception is in the expo hall. I think DOE thinks I’m a bit pushy at times, but I was determined to turn the expo hall reception into a public event (and I was glad that the morning panel mentioned the visibility of AFVs). So, for the first time, the public was invited. Okay, we had to provide a lot of complimentary tickets, and I think about 50 nonconference people attended, but the concept is in place.

The second reception is at Dock Street Brewery and the beer that I’m having with dinner tastes mighty good. I circulate to get a feel for what people are talking about. One conversation is particularly interesting. A fellow coordinator picked up on the RAV4 giveaway and tells me that he proposed a plan to get used General Service Administration AFVs into the hands of coordinators. He wanted DOE to fund the acquisition cost which, is pretty low (around $1,700 for a light-duty AFV). The proposal was rejected (twice). But the end of the story goes like this: The cars are often sold to dealers who turn around and sell them for about $5,000. Hmmm … is DOE missing a golden opportunity to get AFVs into the hands of potential role models?

Tomorrow is our rapid-fire approach to convening sessions and activities. From ScienceFest to the Center City Ride & Drive, the day will be jam-packed. I get home and fall into bed only to realize that I need to print out maps for the Ride & Drive. I hope this isn’t indicative of the type of day tomorrow will be.

Tuesday, 15 May 2001

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.

At 7:30 a.m., the awards breakfast is about to get underway, but I’m on my way to the Ride & Drive site. Blue and yellow banners printed with the slogan "Road to Alternative Fuels — Clean Cities" line Arch Street. (Three cheers to our brilliant graphic designer who made every banner, brochure, pamphlet, invitation, and schedule a visual feast.) We need to line up about 30 alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) on three city blocks. We set up stations for each manufacturer, where conference attendees will soon have the option to sign up for test drives. We have everything from electric scooters to biodiesel trucks. We even have a propane-powered Schwan’s ice cream truck filled with treats. (Shouldn’t every food delivery truck use alternative fuels?)

A propane-powered Schwan’s ice cream truck.

During the Ride & Drive, I sneak away to get a glimpse of ScienceFest, where conference organizers are ushering in more than 600 elementary school children. I am tickled by the joyous shrieks coming from the expo hall. There are children piling in electric vehicles, marveling at the liquefied natural gas tanks (about twice their size) on the over-the-road UPS truck, begging to
ride the electric bikes and scooters, pretending to make deliveries from the electric postal truck, and playing educational games at the interactive GM science exhibit. Other children are in sessions learning about clean transportation choices with EPA staff with the aid of the 4-H "Going Places, Making Choices" curriculum. Still other children are listening to Bill Nye’s presentation in the theater. I’m amazed this is all happening. I knew GM had taken some children through the expo hall at last year’s conference, and I thought a full youth program would have just the kind of visibility, excitement, and energy that Clean Cities needs. It is my hope that ScienceFest will become a permanent part of the Clean Cities conference.

At the same time, conference attendees can choose to attend any of a myriad of sessions, including "Airports Take Off," "Movers and Shakers: Heavy-duty Product Roll-out," and "It’s in the Air: Promoting the Health Benefits of AFVs." I know that I will need to go to the website to study all the presentations I’m never going to get to today.

GM’s exhibit in the convention center.

Near the end of the afternoon sessions, I need to sneak away and take two other drivers to refuel the natural-gas vehicles. The closest natural-gas station is about 15 blocks away, at the site of our utility gas works. The ride is through one of the roughest sections of North Philadelphia, and the station is at the back of a gated utility lot. I know there are not too many consumers who want to make this trip. But the driver of the biodiesel bus had to go to Medford, N.J., to refuel, and the ethanol people had just enough fuel to make it through the conference (they would have had to go to Maryland to refuel).

I also know that if consumer demand started to peak, there are plenty of companies who would be oh-so-happy to install a natural-gas "pump" and other alternative fuel outlets at convenient sites. I also think about the recent announcement of the first AFV refueling mall in California, and I’m jealous that we don’t have all the alternative fuels under one site. Over the rumble of the compressors, I talk to the drivers about their refueling adventures. As it turns out, they’ve never refueled with natural gas, so I launch into my fueling demonstration and smile because the girl is showing the boys something about cars.

The alternative fuel caravan leaves for the closing reception around 6:30 p.m. At 8:30, I notice a table of people talking about the environmental vehicle (EV) rental-car situation at the airport. EV Rental is trying hard to break into the Philadelphia market — it is a perfect match, since there are lots of business travelers who could rent natural-gas and hybrid vehicles. The business also provides consumers with an opportunity to try out AFVs. (EV Rental operates in a partnership with Budget at several airports across the country.) The catch right now is that the airport has been slow to draft an agreement that would grant EV Rental access to its natural gas station. A few minutes later, the president of the company tells me about a new solution.

As I’m waiting to take a shuttle back to the convention center, I’m drawn into a conversation about propane. The propane industry has been slow to promote their fuel for vehicles — it works just fine, but they are playing catch-up to the strong natural-gas industry promoters. An industry representative shares a marketing strategy — he says that the alternative fuel industry sees and treats the refueling of an AFV as a "process." He thinks this is all wrong for the consumer market. He says pumping gas is second nature to most people — not a "process." Therefore, to be successful, AFV refueling has to be as easy and mindless as going to the corner gas station. I guess we still need to get our free coffee with every tank refill.

Another day of the ups and downs that continue to shape my industry perspective. Tomorrow, we close the conference. Physically, I think I’m ready, but intellectually, emotionally, and philosophically, I want this up-front and close examination of the industry to continue. I love the access I’ve had, and I’m sad that it is about to end.

Wednesday, 16 May 2001

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.

We decide not to torture attendees with an early start today, so around 9:00 a.m. the final sessions get rolling. The “States’ Rights" group is discussing the legislative action on the local and state levels that has powered alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) market advances. I think back to Jack Doyle’s book, Taken For a Ride, and recall that California’s tough clean-vehicle standards drove changes on a national level. The panel also discusses the industry synergies that states should consider. For example, turning agricultural waste streams into fuel diversifies the agricultural market and makes it a part of the climate change solution.

Another group is examining the AFV resale market — without a resale market it will be difficult for fleets to make the AFV investment. The last group is talking about international issues, which I think will be a major driver of the alternative fuel industry.

A natural-gas Civic GX.

Just when I think everything’s just about done, I get an offer from Honda. They had a natural-gas Civic GX in the expo hall — “the cleanest car on earth” — fitted with a light bar and ready for a parking enforcement or security agency to slip it into its fleet. They ask me if I could get it into such a fleet in Philadelphia. I never turn down these opportunities and am already thinking of three fleets that can use it during the four-week trial. The local benefits of hosting the conference have been tremendous, and I am encouraging people to take on the task.

By 1:30 p.m., the hotel has pretty much cleared out, the amazing conference staff from the National Renewable Energy Lab have packed their gear, and I am driving the Civic to a host utility, PECO Energy, until we can deliver it to a local fleet. I’m ready to take a deep breath when my pager goes off. Our executive director wants to make sure that I get the green building contract signed before the end of the week, and I need to start looking at bid specifications for white reflective roof coatings. Clearly, the conference is over — let the juggling begin.