Since the publication of the article below, the City of El Dorado has continued to expand its CNG services including the addition of fleet vehicles and on-site storage capacity. The fueling station is used weekly by private businesses and individuals to re-fuel in a convenient location. This service is offered without competition to any locally owned/operated station. Despite the relatively low cost of unleaded fuel, the City continues to see the cost benefit of CNG. If you have questions regarding the City project and it's impact on our organization and community., please contact the Brad Meyer, Director of Public Works, at 316-321-9100.
Rethinking Your Bottom Line: CNG and the City of El Dorado (As Published in the Kansas Government Journal May 2015)
Successful establishments empower their employees to make decisions for the good of the group. From receptionists to department heads there should be a sense of ownership in the organization where people take pride in providing exceptional service. Whether the customer being served is internal or external, the interaction should be held to the same organization wide standard of excellence. The City of El Dorado has nine departments, each with a defined role. The end goal of each department is to meet the needs of the community - now and in the future. It is this goal which first spurred the City’s conversation regarding alternative fuels. This conversation yielded results above and beyond the initial hope of impacting a single budget line item.
In 2010, the City of El Dorado Public Works Department began to take an analytical look into the future of transportation and the cost of providing services to the community. EPA mandated changes to diesel vehicles and the inconsistencies of gas prices spurred discussions of utilizing alternative fuels for the City of El Dorado’s fleet. On its face, the discussion focused impacting the bottom line and fostering long-term fiscal sustainability in fuel costs. Five years and one compressed natural gas (CNG) station later, the City of El Dorado has new appreciation for collaborative projects and the impact they can have on an organization.
CNG is a colorless, tasteless alternative to gasoline. With use dating back to WWII, natural gas vehicles are a proven technology that have been enhanced and refined into a viable substitute to gasoline or diesel vehicles. CNG powers approximately 12 million vehicles on the road today. The growth in the use of CNG vehicles is no mystery. Natural gas burns cleaner and has consistently cost less per gas/diesel gallon equivalent than both unleaded and diesel fuels.
When one considers the average cost of fuel, CNG sounds almost too good to be true. For example, the average cost of diesel is $3.75 a gallon. If you are using 10,000 gallons a year, your diesel fuel bill is $37,500. If that same truck operated on CNG at an average cost of $0.85 per diesel gallon equivalent, your fuel costs drop to $8,500 – a savings of $29,500 a year per truck. However, despite these numbers, direct costs and savings for the project as a whole are difficult to quantify. There are other costs associated with a transition to any alternative fuel and there are many variables. It is important to assess all factors to ensure a project’s success.
It has been said that an idea, once unveiled, has no owner. It is ripe for taking, manipulating, and distorting. Often the best laid ideas can change into projects that become improbable and cost prohibitive. Roadblocks can bar a good idea from becoming a successful project. From its inception, the CNG project faced the two biggest roads blocks of municipal government. It was the forward thinking mentality of El Dorado staff and elected officials which allowed the CNG project to move forward and become the success it is today.
Roadblock one- “We don’t do that.” Brad Meyer, Public Works Director and project lead, noted that being told “no” was one of the biggest challenges of the project. The negativity started during the research phase and continued into conversations about vehicle conversions. Meyer heard that companies did not sell CNG vehicles. He also heard about station owners who refused to sell alternative fuels. Several years were spent working unsuccessfully with private sector businesses on developing fueling stations. Without the ability to purchase the vehicles and without fuel those vehicles, once acquired, the project could have died in the water. But Meyer and the Public Works Department employees refused to take “no” for an answer. Considering the assets of the organization both in human capital and established community networks, a viable solution was developed. The City of El Dorado would convert our existing fleet in house and build our own fueling station.
Enter roadblock number two: “How are we going to pay for the project?” We are all familiar with the phrase, “It’s not in the budget.” With the current economic climate, most government entities are cutting projects, not adding new ones. The cost to a private company for a new CNG station is approximately $1.5 million. And yet there is something to be said for perseverance, exceptional organizational culture, and interdepartmental collaboration. Utilizing the skills and capacities of existing City employees a new CNG station was built on the Public Works Department grounds for less than ten percent of the private sector cost, and it did so within the existing operating budget.
We recognize that current gas prices are lower than they have been in years. We also recognize that CNG stations are not always as convenient as gas stations. Our CNG station was seamlessly integrated into our current fuel system with fast fill and slow fill capabilities. The ability to accept multiple forms of payment provides an asset to the El Dorado community. Now the community, which does not currently have a commercial CNG station as well as visitors operating CNG vehicles, have access to CNG.
To combat fuel prices and potential refueling issues, the City of El Dorado operates two different styles of CNG vehicle with the goal of adding a third by the fall of 2015. Dedicated CNG vehicles operate solely on compressed natural gas. El Dorado has three dedicated CNG vehicles including the first dedicated CNG street sweeper in the state. The other vehicles operating on CNG in the fleet are bi-fuel. Bi-fuel vehicles have two separate tanks giving the operator the ability to run on either CNG or unleaded fuel. Operating bi-fuel vehicles allows the operator to make the best possible fuel choice for the situation.
Simply, having the ability to fuel vehicles does not qualify this project as successful. A station is only as good as the vehicles it serves. The City of El Dorado has two staff members who are able to complete vehicle conversions. Eliminating the additional cost of conversion from the manufacturer and adding the ability to perform routine maintenance in house has significantly reduced the fiscal impact of fleet management on this project. Remember - the cost of purchasing EPA regulated diesel vehicles was one of the major reasons the City began exploring the feasibility of this project. The vehicles are already budgeted to be purchased, and we have developed a way to make the transition more cost effective. Today the City’s Police, Fire, Recreation, and Public Utilities Departments all have CNG vehicles in their fleets.
The City of El Dorado CNG project, while still in its infancy has changed perspectives within the organization and has fostered positive change in the community. Awards and newspaper articles gave some recognition to employees for their hard work, but when a semi-trailer pulled into the Public Works lot a few weeks ago looking for a place to fuel, the influence of accomplishment was truly felt. Unable to access CNG from other stations, the driver had been directed to El Dorado by his dispatcher. The driver left after having a quality service experience: he was able to refuel quickly, pay with a company card, and have a conversation with people who understood his company’s decision to run semi’s on an alternative fuel. That is the kind of reward employees and citizens will continue to talk about.
Although encouraged by City Management, the CNG project was not a mandate from the top. The organic growth that followed was a result of employee ownership and empowerment. The City of El Dorado recognized the strengths and talents of its employees and took the next step by connecting them with opportunities to contribute outside scope normal duties. Because employees have a vested interest in the project and its continued success, there is a deeper desire for achievement. Employees are talking about the project outside of work and driving a continued interest from other parties.
We may not be able to predict the future fiscal impact of CNG on the fuel budget for City of El Dorado, but there are many measurable results. The CNG project has directly impacted on five of our nine departments, embedded a sense of pride in employees, stretched and redefined work capacities, and inspired conversations about sustainability and economic development with other businesses in the community. These results have a real impact on the bottom line, across all line items.
Article submitted by Suzie Locke Director of Human Resources for the City of El Dorado. Suzie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.