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.

Saturday, 12 May 2001

PHILADELPHIA, Pa.

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.