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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Vehicle alignment
October 5, 2010 - 10:00pm

Greenback U has a sustainable purchasing policy in place. Barring a major difference in price, departments are supposed to consider environmental impact in all purchase decisions. As a result, there's been some shift in the mix of cars and trucks the University purchases. We have a number of hybrids in our campus fleet, and some natural gas-powered vehicles, and some that are fully electric. But those are still the exceptions.

In general, Greenback tends to buy pretty much the same sorts of vehicles we've been buying for decades. Pickup trucks (tending toward heavy duty diesels),delivery vans (tending towards large), passenger vans (tending towards full-sized). Each vehicle is purchased by a specific department for its own use, and each vehicle gets selected to meet the most demanding set of conditions which can reasonably be anticipated. If we think we might ever have to haul a ton of stuff, then we make sure each pickup has two tons of carrying capacity (no sense getting caught short). If we ever expect to have to transport 12 students, we make sure that every van we buy seats at least 18 (same logic). As a result, over 90% of the time anyone on campus is driving a Greenback car or truck, the vehicle is over-sized for the task at hand. But, since each department owns only a few vehicles, practical options are few.

A central motor pool, such as many corporations used to maintain, could reshape the situation significantly. Let's face it, even if each vehicle user occasionally encounters a situation requiring high vehicle capacity (weight, passengers, whatever), they're not likely all to do it at the same time. A campus fleet configured to meet average demand plus an adequate safety margin could feature a larger number of small vehicles that does our current set of departmentally-based fleets.

A central motor pool could easily be funded for no more than what we're currently spending. Capital costs could come out of a central account, and departments could pay for vehicles used on some sort of charge-back basis. Drive a smaller, more efficient car or truck, get charged less for the day. Done at all well, the University would save money, virtually every department now buying vehicles would save money, and fuel usage (hence greenhouse gas emissions) would be reduced. Design the charge-back schedule appropriately, and the smaller, lighter, more efficient vehicles would get far more use than the larger models that currently make up most of our fleet and account for most of our mileage.

Additionally, having a central motor pool (with a central motor pool manager, properly motivated) might help the campus to consider sorts of vehicles which never seem to make the short list at present. Manufacturers throughout the country are producing highly versatile all-electric work carts and light trucks. A university campus would seem the ideal environment for short-range electric service vehicles, given that on most days, most of our fleet is driven 25 miles or less (in many cases, far less). A campus can (more easily than many other locations) also install electric recharging stations, making electric vehicles that much more convenient.

Now, if I'm driving halfway across the state, I don't want to be in an all-electric truck with limited range -- I want to be driving something that I can refuel pretty much anywhere. And many Greenback employees probably drive out of town on the job from time to time. But those are the exceptions, not the rules. And, again, the exceptions aren't likely all to hit on the same day.

I'll be ecstatic when the majority of Greenback's campus fleet consists of electric vehicles, and I can envision that day coming within the next decade if the motor pool gets centralized. Some departments, for some uses, are a long way from going all electric -- we're in the Northeast, we get a fair amount of snow, I can see the plow trucks needing to stay heavy and diesel-powered for a long time to come. And the campus ambulance fleet. And some portion of the campus police fleet. But for most other uses, most of the time, our employees could be driving a lot smaller, a lot lighter, and a lot cleaner than they are right now.

Or they could, if our vehicle ownership procedures were well aligned with our sustainable purchasing policy.


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