Public agencies grapple with ‘green vehicle’ mandate

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South Kitsap Fire and Rescue’s commissioners have started looking at the practical implications of running 40 percent of their fleet on biofuel, since they could be required to do so by 2013.

The push towards making the trucks “greener” comes from the Washington Legislature.

State lawmakers in 2007 passed a bill requiring “state and local governments” to “satisfy 100 percent of their fuel needs” with “electricity or biofuel” by 2015 — to the extent deemed appropriate by the State’s Department of Commerce.

The lawmakers put additional pressure on the state and local government, in 2009, by adding a provision to the bill requiring that 40 percent of their vehicles switch to alternative fuel usage by June 1, 2013.

For fire departments, switching to biofuel “just can’t be done,” said Mike Brown, executive director for the Washington Fire Chiefs association. “It’s not affordable. It’s not practical.”

Most of the engines could, in theory, run on biodiesel, but the fuel tends to clean the gunk out of older engines and clog up their filters.

Clogged filters translate to unreliable engines.

And unreliable engines are unacceptable in fire fighting, said several of South Kitsap Fire and Rescue’s commissioners at a meeting last Thursday.

State Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, introduced two bills during this legislative session to block the measure.

“I was contacted by one of the cities in my district that was concerned with the requirements for local governments to turn cars over to biofuels and electricity in just a few short years, and what that would cost,” Pearson said. “I know my communities are always willing to do what they can to be forward thinking in their transportation technology, but with the current economic situation, they are panicked about what the trade-off would be on local services. This policy could break the bank of small- and medium-sized cities.”

“It’s really a matter of life and death,” added Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Sedro-Wolley, a co-sponsor of the bills. “First responders must be confident that when someone calls 911, they can get their emergency vehicles started and get those vehicles rapidly to the scene without clunking out.

“If there’s a fire, a flood, power lines down, or whatever the emergency,” Kristiansen said, “first responders must have reliable transportation to ensure the public’s safety. Minutes and seconds count in an emergency. Our police, fire and public works departments shouldn’t be wasting precious time to get their vehicles started because of sludge in the engines from biofuels.”

The two bills, HB-1141 and 1781, both died in committee, although Brown said he’s holding out hope they could still be revived.

Even if it’s not, the state’s Department of Commerce plans to be economically reasonable in its requirements to the state and local agencies, said Tony Usibelli, the director of the state’s energy office.

“I’ll tell you frankly, we’re not planning to push it hard, just because of the economics,” he said.

Prices are coming down for biofuels, though, and when it’s economically efficient, the Department of Commerce plans to “encourage people to switch,” he said. “If it turns out that there’s a premium, we don’t want to push folks.”

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