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GSA adding 5,600 hybrid vehicles, but higher cost remains issue

Aug. 1, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By TIM KAUFFMAN   |   Comments
The Energy Department has committed to switching to an all-hybrid fleet within three years. It is leasing 753 hybrids from GSA this year, including 273 Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks, above, and 145 Ford Escape sport utility vehicles.
The Energy Department has committed to switching to an all-hybrid fleet within three years. It is leasing 753 hybrids from GSA this year, including 273 Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks, above, and 145 Ford Escape sport utility vehicles. (GANNETT)

A massive fleet of new hybrid vehicles is arriving at federal agencies this summer as part of an unprecedented effort to offload the government's least fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

The General Services Administration earlier this year purchased more than 5,600 hybrid vehicles, which pair an electric motor with a traditional gasoline-powered engine. The move single-handedly doubled the government's inventory of hybrid vehicles.

GSA is leasing the new hybrid vehicles to agencies as they trade in their older vehicles, which GSA will sell at auction.

GSA received the first batch of vehicles about a month ago and will continue to receive new vehicles throughout the summer as they roll off the assembly line, said Bill Toth, director of GSA's Office of Motor Vehicle Management.

The new vehicles will go a long way toward helping agencies cut gasoline consumption and reduce their carbon footprints. Nearly all of the hybrid vehicles GSA purchased are 2010 Ford Fusions, a midsized sedan that gets 39 mph on city streets and highways combined second in class only to the Toyota Prius. The Fusion emits 4.8 tons of carbon dioxide annually, compared with 7.5 tons for the nonhybrid version.

But the environmental benefits come at a steep up-front cost: Each hybrid Ford Fusion car costs $8,368 more than the nonhybrid version under government-negotiated prices, Toth said. However, that cost differential lessens over the life of the vehicle. That's because hybrids have lower gas costs, one year more usage in the federal fleet, and higher resale values for when agencies recycle them out of the federal fleet.

GSA used its own money to cover this incremental cost for 3,260 hybrids, meaning the vehicles won't cost extra for leasing agencies. In addition, GSA purchased another 1,600 hybrids using proceeds from the sale of older vehicles that agencies exchanged last year when they received new vehicles through the Recovery Act.

Barring another round of stimulus funds, agencies aren't likely to see another aggressive purchase of hybrid vehicles anytime soon, Toth said.

"I don't know that we'll see the numbers we've seen in the last two years continue at that pace without some sort of infusion of capital. They're very expensive vehicles and when you look at meeting your mission ... and one [vehicle] is $10,000 cheaper than the other, capital's limited. It's tough to make that jump," he said.

The Energy Department has committed to switching to an all-hybrid fleet within three years. It is leasing 753 hybrids from GSA this year: 334 Ford Fusions, 273 Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks, 145 Ford Escape sport utility vehicles and one Honda Insight.

Energy covered the additional cost of leasing hybrid vehicles instead of traditional gasoline-powered models, Toth said.

The next frontier: Electric cars

For the first time this year, GSA is offering three all-electric vehicles on its schedule. All are light- and medium-duty cargo vans and trucks that can go between 50 and 100 miles on a single charge.

GSA has received only one order so far, for an all-electric van produced by Enova Systems of Torrance, Calif. The Army will lease the van for use at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Enova's chief operating officer, John Mullins, said the van is the ideal choice for the Army's public works unit, which provides general maintenance across the base. In a statement announcing the order, Mullins said he anticipates receiving additional orders from other federal agencies and departments once the Army demonstrates how well the van can perform.

However, the van's steep price will be a major obstacle for agencies to overcome. The van costs more than $100,000, which is a fivefold increase from the $20,000 gasoline-powered cargo van typically found on GSA's schedule, Toth said.

"In trying to maximize your budget and trying to be green, there are some trade-offs there. In this case the incremental cost is very steep," he said.

Perhaps more promising is the potential to purchase plug-in electric vehicles, which will be rolling off of U.S. assembly lines later this year.

"Everyone's waiting for them to hit the market," Toth said.

GSA has committed to purchasing 100 of the vehicles, which will be leased to federal agencies, and also intends to offer them for sale to agencies through the GSA schedule.

The vehicles will be placed in clusters near where manufacturers are delivering them to ensure that the vehicles can be serviced by mechanics trained in the new technology, Toth said.

Charging stations will be installed where the vehicles will be housed, and GSA is exploring the potential to partner with industry or other users to share the expense of installing the stations. GSA also hopes to pilot different energy sources for the stations, including solar and wind power in addition to standard electric power, he said.

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