Partnership aims to promote cars of tomorrow today

A new partnership involving groups from San Marcos, Austin and San Antonio is looking to encourage adoption of electric and compressed natural gas vehicles in Central Texas in hopes of improving the region's air quality.

"It's important that we get familiar with the advanced vehicle technology of the future," said Andrew Johnston, director of the Central Texas Fuel Independence Project, one of the partners involved in the effort. "Our kids are going to be driving different cars than us. Our fleets are going to be operating in different ways than they do today."

Other partners involved in the project include the Greater San Marcos Partnership, the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas at San Antonio and Austin Energy.

San Marcos CISD is considering its options to purchase school buses that run on compressed natural gas, or CNG, which proponents praise for emitting fewer harmful chemicals into the air than gasoline powered vehicles. SMCISD Associate Transportation Director Carter Hutson said the two biggest barriers to the district's adoption of CNG vehicles are funding and lack of CNG infrastructure in the area.

"It's probably going to take the district, the city and the county coming together to build a joint co-op fueling station," Hutson said. "And it would have to be big enough to accommodate the number of vehicles that would be going there."

Hutson also said if the district pursues CNG vehicles, it would have to consider training or hiring additional staff to handle refueling them, which requires more technical expertise than refueling gasoline vehicles.

The partnership, which was announced in San Marcos on Aug. 26, is hoping to help address these issues by pushing for increased infrastructure and providing training to first responders, fleet operators and others.

Growing popularity


There are currently three CNG fueling stations in Austin and San Antonio, but Johnston said there are plans for three additional stations to be completed in the next 12 months. In August, CNG 4 America, a CNG company based in Katy, announced plans to open the first public CNG fueling station between Austin and San Antonio in San Marcos. The company received a $400,000 grant from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to help fund the effort.

According to numbers Johnston culled from entities tracking vehicle trends, in 2011 there were 144 electric vehicles in the Austin area. In 2014, Johnston counted more than 1,400. Infrastructure has kept pace, as there are now more than 320 public charging stations for electric vehicles in the 10-county area comprising the Austin and San Antonio metropolitan statistical areas. There are also 105 CNG vehicles in the Austin area, Johnston said.

State Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, sponsored the legislation that increased the amount of grant funds available to consumers interested in purchasing electric or CNG vehicles. The state now provides up to $2,500 for drivers interested in buying a CNG or electric vehicle. Isaac said 2,142 grants were made available after the last legislative session, and of those, 505 have been used. Of that number, only six were for CNG vehicles. Isaac blamed a higher sticker price—CNG vehicles can cost an additional $7,500 or more than gasoline vehicles—for slower consumer adoption.

"That initial up-front sticker cost—even though you're saving $1 or $1.50 per gallon—tends to be a little frightening," he said.

Yliana Flores, coordinator of Alamo Area Clean Cities, one of the entities in the partnership, said the group is hoping to spur adoption of advanced vehicle technology—a term applied to natural gas and electric vehicles—among first responders and commercial fleet operators with hopes of eventually popularizing the vehicles among consumers.

"I think as we start to adopt and the infrastructure starts to grow, you're going to see the consumers come on board with it," Flores said. "The hard part is the infrastructure. That's been a roadblock for us."

Training


Flores said the partnership has made a priority of training emergency personnel and first responders in best practices when they encounter natural gas and electric vehicles.

"People want to know what these vehicles are, if they're different, if they can explode at any moment," Flores said. "We thought the best way to [educate them] is not with the general public; it's to start with the people who are supposed to be protecting them."

Mike Vasil, battalion chief for the Kyle Fire Department, said many KFD personnel have been trained in what to look for when they arrive at the scene of accidents involving natural gas or electric vehicles, but he said he welcomes any additional training that can be made available to the department.

"You can never stop learning in our line of work because you have new cars coming out every year," Vasil said. "There's always newer technology that's coming out."

The partners are also pushing for programs and classes to educate people about advanced technology vehicle maintenance at Central Texas colleges. Earlier this year the Department of Energy agreed to seed fund the first advanced vehicle technology classes at Austin Community College. Initially the program will consist of two classes each for electric and natural gas vehicle maintenance.

Hector Aguilar, executive dean of the Department of Continuing Education at ACC, said he expects the classes to begin in February. From there the program could be expanded to include other classes and additional campuses, he said.

Environmental effects


According to the EPA, natural gas produces fewer nitrogen oxides and less carbon dioxide—two compounds that reduce air quality—than gasoline or coal. All three energy sources contribute to global warming.

Maintaining relatively clean air is in Hays County's best interest, Precinct 4 Commissioner Ray Whisenant said. Failure to meet the Environmental Protection Agency's air quality standards would have serious ramifications for Hays County and the rest of the Central Texas region, Whisenant said. In addition to tighter regulations from the EPA, residents would have to have their cars' emissions inspected twice annually, he said. Reducing vehicles' harmful emissions would be the best way to clean the air, he said.

In August the EPA released a recommendation for stricter air quality standards that would reduce the acceptable amount of ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 60–70 parts per billion. A final decision on whether to adopt the new standards is expected in December.

"It's going to take a yeoman's effort these next two years to meet the upgraded standards, because we've been right on the [limit of the] requirement," Whisenant said.

Increased oil and gas production has brought new jobs and increased tax revenue to the state of Texas, which accounts for

23 percent of the nation's natural gas. But environmentalists have also decried the effects of techniques such as fracking, which involves blasting highly pressurized fluids below the earth's surface to reach remote natural gas reserves. Concerns have been raised that fracking can cause earthquakes and damage to water systems.

Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, an organization dedicated to environmental education and justice, said he and his organization applaud efforts to put more electric vehicles on the road, but he is skeptical of claims natural gas vehicles will be any cleaner than newer diesel engines.

"With the new engine standards and the new fuel standards there's not really a great deal of difference between modern diesel engines with modern diesel fuel specifications and modern natural gas," Reed said.

Reed said replacing old diesel engines with newer ones may be a better use of federal and state funds than retrofitting vehicles with CNG engines, and he believes the environmental effects would most likely be a wash. The most important step that can be taken right now is for the Legislature to allocate additional funds for rebates and grant programs aimed at getting old diesel engines off the road, Reed said.