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Problems Plague U.S. Flex-Fuel Fleet

Tonya Jackson, a Postal Service worker, fills up her flex-fuel vehicle at the Brentwood facility in Washington.
Tonya Jackson, a Postal Service worker, fills up her flex-fuel vehicle at the Brentwood facility in Washington. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

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By Kimberly Kindy and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 23, 2008

The federal government has invested billions of dollars over the past 16 years, building a fleet of 112,000 alternative-fuel vehicles to serve as a model for a national movement away from fossil fuels.

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But the costly effort to put more workers into vehicles powered by ethanol and other fuel alternatives has been fraught with problems, many of them caused by buying vehicles before fuel stations were in place to support them, a Washington Post analysis of federal records shows.

"I call it the 'Field of Dreams' plan. If you buy them, they will come," said Wayne Corey, vehicle operations manager with the U.S. Postal Service. "It hasn't happened."

Under a mandate from Congress, federal agencies have gradually increased their fleets of alternative-fuel vehicles, a majority of them "flex-fuel," capable of running on either gasoline or ethanol-based E85 fuel. But many of the vehicles were sent to locations hundreds of miles from any alternative fueling sites, the analysis shows.

As a result, more than 92 percent of the fuel used in the government's alternative-fuel fleet continues to be standard gasoline. A 2005 law -- meant to align the vehicles with alternative-fuel stations -- now requires agencies to seek waivers when a vehicle is more than five miles or 15 minutes from an ethanol pump.

The latest generations of alternative vehicles have compounded the problem. Often, the vehicles come only with larger engines than the ones they replaced in the fleet. Consequently, the federal program -- known as EPAct -- has sometimes increased gasoline consumption and emission rates, the opposite of what was intended.

The EPAct program offers a cautionary tale as President-elect Barack Obama promises to kill dependence on foreign oil and revive the economy by retooling for the green revolution, experts say.

"This is an example of a law that has had a perversely different effect than what was originally intended,'' said Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an nonprofit environmental organization based in Washington.

The Postal Service illustrates the problem. It estimates that its 37,000 newer alternative-fuel delivery vans, which can run on high-grade ethanol, consumed 1.5 million additional gallons of gasoline last fiscal year because of the larger engines.

The vehicles that would allow the agency to meet federal mandates were available in six- and eight-cylinder models -- not the four-cylinder variety it traditionally purchased. Alternative fuel was used less than 1 percent of the time in 2007-2008.

The Department of Energy defended its efforts with the program in a written statement. "The U.S. Government continues to promote diversification of alternative fuels and vehicles in order to reduce our dependence on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions," spokeswoman Jennifer Scoggins wrote. "We work with private industry partners to develop and grow infrastructure of alternative fuels."

Scoggins pointed to a two-year growth spurt of E85 stations, which dispense fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Since 2006, ethanol stations have increased from 481 to 1,689 nationally, but most are in the Midwest. Station owners face a vexing challenge: how to compete with more than 160,000 gasoline stations located on nearly every street corner, especially as gas prices drop.


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