Finding an Alternative

Valley’s fleets leading charge in moving away from oil-based fuels

How many alternative-fuel vehicles are operating in Las Vegas? The answer is probably a lot more than you think.

The American public seems conflicted in its view of alternative-fuel vehicles. According to a Consumer Federation of America report in May, more than four out of five Americans said it is important that the country reduce its consumption of oil—and that number has undoubtedly gone up since the BP oil spill. Yet according to a recent Harris poll, less than one out of five Americans would be likely to buy an alternative-fuel vehicle.

Much of this conflict is undoubtedly due to the “chicken-and-egg” problem: Drivers don’t want to buy the vehicles until fuel is readily available, and stations don’t want to sell fuel until there are enough vehicles on the road to make it worthwhile. People seem to like the idea of alternative-fuel vehicles but are unwilling to buy them.

This is not true for one important group of car buyers, though. Fleet managers can avoid the “chicken-and-egg” problem by fueling vehicles at one central location, and the costs of maintaining a fleet can even make it economical for a manager to build a fueling station.

Alternative-fuel vehicles have been quietly operating in Las Vegas for years. In the 1970s, Yellow Cab became the first fleet to introduce alternative-fuel vehicles to the Valley. Former general manager Jack Owens says he got frustrated with the fluctuating gas prices due to the oil embargo in the ’70s and changed his entire fleet of taxis to compressed natural gas before changing in 1981 to propane, which he found to be more efficient. Owens says the long-term cost of propane is similar to gasoline, but now-renamed Yellow-Checker-Star Transportation still comes out ahead since propane prices do not fluctuate like gas prices. Propane engines run cleaner than gas engines, and last twice as long, so the vehicles require less maintenance. Today, every Yellow-Checker-Star vehicle still runs on propane.

The city of Las Vegas also has recently been converting its entire fleet of vehicles to use alternative fuels. Dan Hyde, the city’s fleet and transportation services manager, is something of a local alternative-fuel evangelist, and is also the executive director of the Las Vegas Regional Clean Cities Coalition. Hyde has overseen the effort to convert the city’s 1,500 vehicles to alternative fuels, which is 90 percent complete.

The city’s vehicles run on a variety of fuels, including compressed natural gas, biodiesel and even hydrogen. The city’s hydrogen fleet is tiny, but Las Vegas has been a pioneer in using hydrogen. The world’s first hydrogen energy station opened here in 2002, and a second opened in 2007. The newer station is even completely self-sustaining, since it uses solar power to convert water into hydrogen.

The largest fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles in the city belongs to the Clark County School District, which runs about 2,000 vehicles on biodiesel, including more than 1,500 buses. Every year, more companies discover the advantages of alternative fuels. The Regional Transportation Commission has added 118 hybrid-electric coaches to its fleet, and 103 coaches that run on compressed natural gas.

With so many vehicles, fuel companies have started offering alternative fuels for sale in Las Vegas. The largest of these is Haycock Petroleum, which has been selling alternative fuels here for 15 years. Marty O’Conner, vice president of fleet fueling, says Haycock currently sells fuel primarily to government agencies and companies that run fleets of vehicles. Haycock does offer these fuels to the public, but individual consumers rarely purchase them. Currently, natural gas is available at five public stations, biodiesel at 13 and propane at 18 (while the two hydrogen stations aren’t open to the public).

All together, there are more than 10,000 alternative-fuel vehicles operating in the Valley. Few private vehicles are part of this number, but with changing attitudes and increased awareness, the “chicken-and-egg” problem is rapidly becoming less of an issue.