Pinellas plans for future with electric vehicles

One of Pinellas County’s two electric cars is parked near a charger.

LARGO — Pinellas County is working on plans that transition its fleet from internal combustion engine vehicles to those powered by electricity over the next 10 years.

But it’s a complicated process, said County Administrator Barry Burton.

Jonathan Ingram, senior manager for Novak Consulting Group/Raftelis Consulting, updated County Commissioners during a Sept. 2 work session about a project intended to help with decisions geared toward electrifying the fleet. Ingram said his report includes 22 recommendations in four areas: staffing and deployment; performance and data management; financial management practices; and fuel site assessment.

The county currently has 1,962 vehicles, including heavy-duty (dump trucks) and light duty (cars) vehicles, trailers and other equipment. A breakdown of light duty vehicles shows there are 26 cars, 154 carts (golf), 161 sport utility vehicles, 235 trucks and 79 vans.

In the area of staffing and deployment, the consultant found that current staffing of fleet technicians is appropriate and consistent with best practices. The county has 13 mechanic/maintenance technicians. Most specialty work has been converted to contracted services, Ingram said. There is a need to focus on skills needed to work on heavy equipment and emergency medical vehicles.

Three sub shops, which had been staffed with one mechanic each, are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ingram recommended leaving the sub shops closed and moving the three mechanics to the central fleet shop.

Three primary issues from the customer perspective were identified in the area of performance and data management, including the cost of service compared to the “$29 oil change,” as well as availability of real time progress reports and convenience of scheduling.

Ingram said there was a “significant need to fix” the billing process in the central fleet garage, which he described as being in “dire shape.” The billing process needs to be simplified, which will allow the potential to generate labor efficiency, he said. Significant facility investments are needed, which could be recouped through a change in billing practices or a one-time general fund subsidy.

The consultant’s study also included an assessment of the county’s fuel sites. Ingram said 13 of the 17 sites were beyond their useful life in terms of the age of equipment. He recommends that 11 be eliminated and that the site at the sheriff’s office in Largo be consolidated with the site at the central garage also in Largo. He recommends keeping the sites at U.S. 19 site in Clearwater and the Northfield Service in Palm Harbor, plus three park-based sites due to their geographic isolation. Those sites are Sand Key, Fort De Soto and Walsingham.

Ingram advocates developing a fuel card program, which is a state program that would allow employees to fuel up at most gas stations throughout the county.

The final topic was an assessment of the impact of converting the fleet currently powered by internal combustion engines to electricity. Ingram said the use of electric vehicles is relatively new so there is limited historical data on its use to draw conclusions.

The market for electric vehicles has consisted mostly of compact cars and sedans with a recent movement toward vans and light duty trucks. Currently, there is not enough information to develop a plan to implement a program using electricity to power heavy duty equipment.

The recommendation is to start with light duty vehicles, which provides an immediate opportunity to begin electrification. It allows the county to learn to manage an electric vehicle fleet and take advantage of the technology.

The cost to replace all 655 of the county’s light duty vehicles is estimated at $7.8 million; however, as the market matures, the cost will likely go down, Ingram said. In addition, other purchasing decisions, such as what type of vehicles to purchase, could drive the cost down, as could the use of cooperative purchasing.

Ingram said the cost of purchasing electric vehicles would be offset by eliminating the need to buy gasoline or diesel fuel. The annual fuel expense for the county’s light duty vehicles in 2020 is estimated at $343,849. If the fleet were electric, the saving would be about $195,994.

However, Ingram noted that electricity costs vary based on rates, usage, peak and non-peak charges and other practices.

The cost to maintain an electric vehicle versus one with an internal combustion engine is less, he said. A survey of European auto dealerships, where electric vehicles have been in use longer, indicates an average of 40% reduction in annual labor hours.

The cost of parts also is cheaper mostly because electric vehicles are “more mechanically simple” than those with internal combustion engines. Consumer Reports estimate a 50% of more reduction in part costs or about $75,000 a year.

Another big cost move to electric would be the purchase of the charging infrastructure, which ranges from $300 to $40,000 per charger. The cost depends on the size of the charger, the time to takes to charge a vehicle and the intended use. Ingram also pointed out that the chargers can be used like a generator during disaster events.

The recommendation is for the county to buy a 50-50 split of two charging station types with varied capabilities for a cost of about $2 million.

Electrical upgrades at several facilities will be needed to accommodate 208-volt service, which Ingram said would be a significant capital expense. Plans also must include disaster response since it will be critical to maintain power to vehicles during disaster events. The minimum cost for generators would be $1.1 million.

Ingram provided a summary of costs. The price to replace the current fleet with electrical vehicles is estimated at $7.8 million. A savings of $363,994 a year will be realized in operating costs. Capital costs would be $3.1 million with $2 million for charging stations and $1.1 million for emergency generators to be used during disasters. No estimate of costs was available for facility electric service upgrades.

The net annual cost increase would be about $762,000.

The main reason to switch to electric vehicles is to reduce the environmental impact and reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Based on EPA emission formulas, the county’s light duty fleet emits about 1,761 tons of CO2 in the atmosphere each year. The county’s power supply is generated by coal-fired plants, which negates some of the CO2 reduction that would come from converting to electric vehicle, Ingram said.

However, if all light duty vehicles were converted, the county would have a 65% reduction in emissions with an 18% increase in manufacturing-related emissions and a 21% increase from the end of life decommissioning. The average total impact would be a 23% reduction.

Hank Hodde, sustainability & resiliency coordinator, said the county had already taken some small steps away from its dependency on gasoline and diesel fuel, starting back in 2008. The most recent effort was this year’s purchase of the county’s first electric vehicles. Other agencies and municipalities also are working toward transitioning to the use of electric power.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has 88 hybrid buses and six electric buses. It has the first inductive wireless charger for buses on the U.S. east coast.

Hodde said national policies were making electrical power a market priority. President Joe Biden plans to replace the federal fleet with electric vehicles and many believe that federal incentives to go electric may increase in the future.

The federal infrastructure fill contains $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charging stations and Pinellas hopes to get a share of that money. Most automobile manufacturers are transitioning a portion of their market to electric.

Burton said that switching to electric vehicles would be a significant shift that needed to be made in the most cost-effective way. He said staff was looking at a 10-year plan.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t start now,” he said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.