on Aug 19th, 2013 in Mail Processing & Transportation | 11 comments

Alternative fueled vehicles are gaining renewed interest with the abundance of cheap, domestic natural gas. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles took off in the 1990s as infrastructure development surged. Service stations then declined for a decade but are now resurging. Liquefied natural gas and ethanol are other options, as is a new clean fuel called GDiesel, a combination of conventional diesel and natural gas that can be used on conventional diesel engines without modifications.

With so many attractive options and an aging delivery fleet in need of an upgrade, the time seems ripe for the U.S. Postal Service to convert or retrofit its fleet. But a quick overhaul remains problematic given a significant hurdle: the Postal Service lacks capital to make a major investment. Another question is where the Postal Service should place its bets. Should it convert to an electric fleet or go with CNG or are the emerging hybrid technologies the way to go? Should it put all its eggs in one basket or should it convert parts of the fleet to different fuels? How does the Postal Service remain flexible enough to adapt to the best technology knowing that rapid innovation in the alternative fuel sector means the next best thing could be right around the corner?

The Postal Service has set a target of increasing alternative fuel use in postal vehicles by 10 percent annually through 2015. It also has goals for reducing postal-vehicle petroleum use and contract transportation petroleum use by 20 percent annually in that time. In its 2012 Sustainability Report, the Postal Service notes that it continues to take proactive steps to increase the use of alternative fuels. It is testing many types of alternative fuels, including fuel cell vehicle, electric long-life vehicles, and new hybrid technologies. “Providing affordable delivery service requires our use of alternate fuels that are conveniently available and competitively priced,” the Postal Service said in the report.

Converting or retrofitting the fleet to an alternative fuel has to make sense financially and logistically based on how the Postal Service operates. Lower fuel costs make the financial benefits of alternative fuels easier to justify. Their environmental benefits are well documented. But logistics remain an issue. If refueling stations are not conveniently or strategically located, the Postal Service has to travel further from its routes. This can affect service and costs.

Share your thoughts on the best strategy for an alternative fuel fleet. Should the Postal Service throw in with one type of fuel or continue experimenting with a number of options? Should it set more aggressive goals for reducing its use of petroleum and increasing its alternative fuel use? Or does its financial situation limit its ability to move aggressively in those areas?


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Increasing the percentage of USPS vehicles using alternative fuels is an excellent idea. The 9-ton truck fleet would be an excellent target for conversion to natural gas for instance. Regarding renewal of the delivery fleet, there are many PPP options (such as leasing and other financial models) that would enable the private sector to provide the initial capital needed to acquire the fleet, whereas the Postal Service would pay for use over time.

Low-cost CNG is a necessary tenet of preserving Last-Mile service. Commercial use of CNG is growing everywhere. Ford is working on a CNG F-150 for commercial use and Honda already has a CNG Civic. Bus fleets have been CNG for a while now. The problem is that the mail truck delivering the mail today is the same one from when I was a kid. Seriously!? USPS could establish partnerships to have CNG refueling across rural America. The problem has been in having stations, not getting the vehicles.

Honda makes a HYDROGEN powered fuel cell electric vehicle, the Honda FCX. From their website:

The FCX Clarity FCEV was designed from the ground up to be a hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle that runs on electricity, and emits only water vapor and heat into the air.

Q. How does a fuel cell work?
A. A fuel cell generates electricity by combining hydrogen and oxygen inside of a fuel cell stack.

Q. The FCX Clarity FCEV is an electric vehicle. Does the FCX Clarity need to be plugged in to recharge?
A. No, the FCX Clarity FCEV generates its own electricity onboard the vehicle inside the fuel cell. Learn more About Fuel Cells.

Q. Does the FCX Clarity FCEV run on gasoline?
A. No. The FCX Clarity FCEV does not use any gasoline whatsoever. It runs on clean, domestically produced compressed hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

Q. How far can I drive it before I have to refuel?
A. The FCX Clarity FCEV has a driving range of approximately 240 miles.*

*Fuel economy estimates and driving range based on EPA test data. Your actual driving distance will vary depending on how you drive and maintain your vehicle.

Q. How and where do I fill up the FCX Clarity FCEV?
A. A number of hydrogen refueling stations can be found in Southern California with others in development. Honda is also working to develop a Home Energy Station that may eventually supply energy to the home while filling up the car right inside the garage.
At about 240 miles per fillup, I dare say that filling up once in the morning should be more than enough to carry any local delivery vehicle through it's daily route. Hydrogen can be produced in a variety of ways. My favorite is by using WATER - good ol' H2O and photovoltaics (solar panels) for the electricity needed to break it down. So the cost of fuel is about equivalent to the cost of water (plus the initial cost of panels & fuel cells). Apparently the vehicles are only available in Southern California because of the lack of refueling stations. Many fleet operators have refueling stations onsite, there's no reason the USPS couldn't do the same. Putting a refueling station onsite eliminates the need for "refueling infrastructure". With no infrastructure requirement the vehicles would no longer be limited to Southern California - anyplace with access to WATER & SUNLIGHT would be able to have a refueling station. Those without such access could use numerous other materials. Here's an interesting link with a few nice pictures of the process. http://www.making-hydrogen.com/diy-hydrogen.html There are at least several companies that already make & sell hydrogen generators. The technology is here now.

The possibilities don't stop there. The USPS could offer their refueling station to the general public, allowing them to actually make a profit from it, and BECOMING the new refueling infrastructure for America. OR, a nearby site could be used instead of actual USPS premises. Infrastructure is slow to build in general because nobody wants to take on the cost without some kind of guarantee of payback. With the knowledge that their own fleet will be using it, there's no reason not to build a station somewhere "near" postal facilities. Offering it out to average paying customers would be a secondary source of income and/or subsidization of these stations and new fleet vehicles.

The fact that hydrogen is even cleaner than CNG and/or any other petrochemical solution is an added bonus. Just to be clear - the hydrogen is NOT burned. Hydrogen is combined with oxygen using a "fuel cell" and in the process electricity is made which drives the vehicle. The only other byproduct is WATER and heat - no pollution whatsoever. Read about it on Honda's own website.

Finally, there's no need to go all out and commit necessarily. Pick just ONE site. Build a station either onsite or nearby. Buy a few vehicles. See how it all works out. Just don't take forever please.

Almost all of the Hydrogen used today comes from Methane (natural gas), a dirty little secret that you won't see mentioned in current dialog. Hydrogen can be extracted from water, but at great cost. The steam reforming process is less expensive. So, until someone unlocks the physics problem of water really liking to be water, Methane will continue to be the source for Hydrogen. Oh, by the way the the other by-product of making Hydrogen is CO2. OOPS. Check it out before responding.

How Honda produces their hydrogen is not something I've seen them state - doesn't mean they do or don't use methane and you may or may not be right about how this particular - or any other - car company produces their hydrogen. Yes, it can be done by methane and it wouldn't surprise me if that's how they did in fact do it. But that's hardly the point.

Fact: Sunlight can be converted to electricity. No dirty secrets there, this is well known common knowledge - everybody knows you can buy solar panels from literally thousands of companies. A quick search on google reveals over 14 million hits. A search for solar panel manufacturers reveals a page on wikipedia listing the top 10 "photovoltaics companies". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_photovoltaics_companies
Most in China but 2 in the USA. So far so good.

Solar panels can be either purchased, or leased. Leasing means no (or possibly little) upfront costs to the consumer - in this case, the post office as consumer. I don't know the details of leasing to a business but they certainly offer it to homeowners, I see no reason why they wouldn't offer the same to a business. The best part? Solar can and does produce so much electricity that it can be SOLD back to the electric company - I don't know the numbers this is something someone would have to sit down and analyze. I suspect the solar panel company selected would be happy to do that at no charge.

So why am I talking about solar panels and electricity? It's probably less common knowledge that to convert water to hydrogen requires electricity and is called "electrolysis". This was discovered over 200 years ago. Yup, we've got the physics angle figured out. So far, we have electricity from solar panels and hydrogen from water - the most common element on the planet piped to every home & business in America. Already available. Now I suppose there are areas that don't get as much sunlight as others and it may require windpower or something else. Regardless, electricity is widely available by one method or another so hydrogen can be generated in whatever quantities needed and the major cost would be in the electricity - which if produced by solar or wind or other natural methods is non-polluting and can potentially be very cost effective - again someone would have to sit down and run the numbers for the post office's specific situation. Hydrogen generators are commercially available. Here's one that took me almost 3 seconds to find and was first on the google list: http://www.grainger.com/Grainger/PARKER-HANNIFIN-Hydrogen-Generator-39T172?cm_sp=IO-_-IDP-_-RR_VTV70300505&cm_vc=IDPRRZ1#productReviewTabs

Do the numbers work for the post office? I have no idea, someone will have to sit down and figure that out.

There is no C02 produced in electrolysis of water - just Hydrogen and Oxygen. You start with H20 (water - 2 Hyrdogen atoms & 1 Oxygen atom) you apply electricity and you end up with 2 Hydrogen atoms and 1 Oxygen atom separated from each other. Clean electricity from solar, wind or other clean sources which in turn give you hydrogen and oxygen.

Now I'm not going to sit here and argue with you, the information is available for those who choose to take a few minutes and seriously look into it with an open mind. If you want to sit there and shake your head without checking into the possibilities because you already know everything, by all means enjoy yourself. But in my book it's better for everyone if the negativity is kept to a minimum. Unless you can provide objective facts & figures on both methods with citations for where you're getting your info. then it's just a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Am I disputing it will cost something? No - but "great cost" is a vague & meaningless term meant to install Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD). Without specific numbers "great cost" means you personally can't afford it - that doesn't mean someone else doesn't have the money and they might consider the same cost to be quite reasonable and/or even better than what they're paying now. Is $15,000 a lot of money? Many people would say yes - and many people would say no; it all depends on your point of view. Everything is relative. Do an objective analysis of all the costs involved - then you'll have a true answer from which a decision can be made.

I should also point out, that there's no need to even build a single fueling facility, just buy (lease) a few cars from Honda - as long as you do it where the existing refueling stations are. Torrance, California and I think there's another in Irvine, California. Honda would know.

I think replacing or retrofitting the fleet with engines that run on anything other than Gasoline or Ethanol is a great idea. I'm convinced at this point that my Postman's conveyance must have a fuel leak that's causing vapors to build up in the mail truck. What convinces me of this is that my Postman doesn't seem to remember days or what he's done on them, and also indicates that he's delivered mail that he certainly has not, consistently for well over 3 years.

Before replacing or retrofitting the fleet however, I'd firmly suggest that the current fleet be inspected for such leaks. I'd hate to think that my poor Postman's very hard job opening a row of boxes and closing them again may be causing him brain damage due to suffocation and/or regular hallucinations of delivering mail when he hasn't due to inhaling fuel vapors. There may be postal drivers' health at risk due to this potential issue. Since they're sharing the roadway with myself and my loved ones, I'm concerned that they may go in to hallucinations and run us down thinking that we may be a cluster mailbox that he needs to service on his route.

Reducing dependancies on non-renewable fuel is also a potential positive step in the right direction for our environment as well.

Please do your best to find a solution that's economical for the Post Office, while reducing the risks and dependancies of burning fossil fuels, and ensuring that the fuels are not something that can be siphoned and imbibed for recreational alteration of consciousness.

Great idea for a study!

Yes the next big thing is CNG/LNG but the PO is a couple of steps behind due mainly to issues dealing with congress the unions and lack of private sector foresight.
One thing you can count on is in the next ten years getting your pizza delivered by drones while waiting on the PO to deliver that express with union carriers.
Best turn all postal transportation over to the private sector and let the open market determine when and if CNG/LNG is viable.

This is NOT the only source of hydrogen generation, just one.

News Release
Hydrogen for Air Products’ Newest Fueling Station Comes From a Sustainable Source--Municipal Wastewater
August 16, 2011 Lehigh Valley, Pa.
Air Products (NYSE: APD), the leader in hydrogen fueling technology, today officially opened its newest California hydrogen fueling station drawing its feedstock from a very novel and sustainable source. Air Products is pumping hydrogen into fuel cell vehicles that is generated from the municipal wastewater treatment plant at the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) in Fountain Valley. In addition to generating hydrogen, the project also creates electricity and heat from this renewable source.

Read the rest here: http://www.airproducts.com/company/news-center/2011/08/0816-hydrogen-for-air-products-newest-fueling-station-comes-from-municipal-wastewater.aspx

You ask the question "Should the Postal Service throw in with one type of fuel or continue experimenting with a number of options?" You've essentially answered that question with this question: "How does the Postal Service remain flexible enough to adapt to the best technology knowing that rapid innovation in the alternative fuel sector means the next best thing could be right around the corner?" If you're interested in remaining flexible, then obviously you can't "throw in with one type of fuel". There's no reason you need to convert the entire fleet today. Take the private sector approach - which is to say pretend you're a real business with shareholders and your own money at stake, instead of a government boondoggle. What would you do then? Chances are you'd phase out older vehicles based on age of the vehicle, maintenance costs, fuel & other costs, and depreciation. As you phase out the old, you get new vehicles using whatever is the best option at the time. There aren't a lot of companies that would simply dump the entire fleet all at once. However, I strongly support the hydrogen approach simply because it's cleaner.

You also ask "Should it set more aggressive goals for reducing its use of petroleum and increasing its alternative fuel use?" I say yes - get off the crack - I mean petro.

Some interesting links:

As noted by Andrew below, fuel cell mail trucks should be considered. At least a portion of the new mail trucks should be hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. A number of auto and bus companies are currently building fuel cell vehicles. It may be that only certain locations with the fuel necessary to produce the hydrogen is readily available at low costs should be considered at first.

Since the Postal Service doesn't appear to have the capital to build the refueling stations, they should consider partnering with private companies on this. That way, the private companies could furnish the fuel to the Postal Service and also to the public as the demand requires.

With all the push for "green" by this administration, fuel cells should definitely be a part of the new fleet!