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Green the fleet

Johnson County transitions to hybrid and electric vehicles
Johnson County Supervisor Mike Carberry stands at a charging post outside the Johnson County Administration Building in Iowa City. A longtime advocate of green initiatives and owner of a Chevy Volt, Carberry has made a priority of greening the fleet with the introduction of hybrid and electric vehicles to both save taxpayers money and reduce the county’s carbon footprint. (photo by Cale Stelken)

IOWA CITY– The bluest county in Iowa is going green.
Johnson County is taking strides to form a more eco-friendly fleet of vehicles, an initiative that’s been several years in the making.
“I drove a Prius for about 10 years,” recalled Mike Carberry, Johnson County Supervisor. A longtime environmental advocate, Carberry was convinced to invest in hybrid and electric cars on a county level after his switch to an all-electric Chevrolet Volt.
A Johnson County committee known as the Green Team eventually made the decision to look into buying such vehicles, and in July 2016, the county purchased a brand-new Toyota Prius, as well as a used Volt.
The green initiative came as part of a strategic plan to establish a Fleet Department where county vehicles can be serviced at a singular location. This includes sheriff, ambulance, public health and pooled vehicles.
Carberry said the initiative has been supplemented with utilities rebates programs rewarding the county for constructing energy-efficient buildings and installing better lighting systems.
“All of those rebates have gone into a sustainability fund, and some of that fund was used to purchase these vehicles,” he explained.
In May 2017, the county introduced to its fleet a Lightning Hybrids vehicle used for Johnson County SEATS paratransit service. The first of its kind in the state, the system is powered by hydraulics rather than electricity, hybridizing the vehicle with an existing internal combustion motor, saving fuel and reducing harmful emissions. It offers a 50 percent reduction in air-polluting nitrogen oxides and up to 35 percent fuel savings. Ideal for frequent stops, the vehicle’s motor/pump converts mechanical energy to hydraulic when the vehicle is braking and hydraulic energy to mechanical during acceleration. A regenerative braking system slows the vehicle by converting motion (kinetic energy) to a form of energy that can be stored and then reapplied to help the vehicle accelerate. The system cuts down brake wear by four to eight times.
“It’s working very well for them,” noted Transportation and Fleet Director Tom Brase.
The Lightning Hybrid joins a variety of medium and heavy-duty commercial vehicles being introduced to the market, including hybrid XL pickups, minivans and SUVs.
“What’s nice about both of those systems– the hydraulic and the XL electric– is that the vehicle will run fine if they’re not operating,” Brase explained. “So if they did have problems with them, we can just shut that part of it down and still run the vehicle as normal.”
Carberry emphasized the vehicular initiative will save taxpayers money while lowering the county’s carbon footprint. The Prius, which is more ideal for long-distance travel, gets about 40 miles per gallon (mpg). The Volt averages about 60 mpg.
“Your first 40 to 50 miles are purely on electric, so you hardly ever use gas if you’re just using it to commute around the county for a couple meetings a day,” Carberry said of the Volt which, along with the Prius, must be reserved in advance by county employees.
“They’ve getting quite a bit of use, so much so that sometimes it’s hard to get one,” he noted.
Last fall, the county supervisor also encouraged the installation of new vehicle chargers in the employee parking lot, an incentive to embrace the post-gasoline era. More chargers are expected to be installed throughout the county as new vehicles are purchased.
Brase said the county has approved the purchase of at least one new vehicle this next fiscal year, with expectations that it be “as close as emissions-free as we can.” A second Lightning Hybrids paratransit vehicle may also be introduced, and the county is currently researching new sheriff’s vehicle options. Brase noted the department’s request for further testing and safety concerns must be further evaluated before possibly making the transition.
“It’s exciting a lot of the stuff that’s coming out nowadays,” said the fleet director.
While the process won’t happen overnight, Johnson County is enthusiastic to be a forerunner in Iowa with regards to cost-effective, eco-friendly initiatives.
“The long term goal would be just to green the fleet as needed,” Carberry said. “As things get retired, the new hires we want to be as green as possible.”