Alternative fuels aren't solving Phoenix's air-pollution problem, and it's doubtful that they will anytime soon

A few years ago, the city of Phoenix owned about 1,400 light trucks and cars that can run on compressed natural gas as part of its effort to reduce dependence on gasoline and help clean the air.

Now it has cut back to 1,073 such vehicles. And over the next several years, the city will shed most — if not all — of its remaining light-duty natural-gas vehicles.

For now, the replacements burn standard gasoline.

Jamie Peachey
Jamie Peachey

As the fleet shrinks, much of the decade-old $13 million in infrastructure for these vehicles will slowly be rendered useless. Burly compressors for the natural gas and maintenance equipment will be sold off.

The trend is affecting government fleets all over the Valley, as well as private vehicles. A look at the state Motor Vehicle Division's license plate statistics shows that the number of alternative-fuel vehicles in the state — in spite of the so-called green movement — is going down.

Alternative-fuel license plates for government vehicles dropped from a high of 5,616 two years ago to just 4,925 this year.

In 2002, the state issued 13,159 of the special clouds-and-blue-sky license plates for private automobiles. This year, it issued 11,799.

Most of these private vehicles are bi-fuel natural-gas vehicles, meaning they can also burn gasoline. And actually, they burn almost nothing but gasoline.

With few exceptions, the only time owners use alternative fuel is for a once-a-year emissions test that qualifies them to display the special plates.

But before you go thinking they do this out of the greenness of their hearts, note that the law allows these owners to use freeway HOV lanes — and, most importantly, it allows them to pay a fraction of the normal vehicle license tax.

The tax rate for most vehicles is based on 60 percent of the vehicles' value. It's a paltry 1 percent for vehicles with the special plate — a lingering perquisite from a scandalous 2000 state government giveaway program that funded the purchase of most of the state's personal alternative-fuel vehicles (more on that later in this story).

For a host of reasons, and despite heavy promotion, alternative fuels haven't worked for personal vehicles. The cost of buying and operating such vehicles never became worth the benefit. They're more expensive than regular gas-eaters, and they aren't necessarily better for the environment.

Experts say that older natural-gas-powered vehicles, which make up the bulk of the public and private alternative-fuel automobiles on the state's roads, spew at least as much pollution into the air as the latest gasoline burners.

Because of the lack of demand for natural-gas vehicles, Detroit all but stopped making them a few years ago. Valley cities that made a heavy commitment to such vehicles for their fleets are now forced to find different options.

Like Phoenix, Mesa has touted itself for its seemingly forward-thinking investment in alternative fuels. The city used to have about 400 bi-fuel cars and light trucks, capable of running on natural gas or gasoline.

That's dwindled to 185 — 150 of which are police cars. The cops, who have always hated the limp acceleration of the bi-fuel vehicles and the bulky second fuel tank in the trunk, can't wait to see the rest go.

The city will then shed the costly infrastructure needed to maintain the vehicles and fill them with natural gas.

Pete Scarafiotti, fleet director and automotive engineer for Mesa, predicts the city's natural-gas-compression equipment will be useful for only another two or three years.

Mesa's buses will continue to run on compressed natural gas, but the light-duty fleet will have converted back to gasoline.

The switch already has happened in Glendale, which has swapped out most of its older natural gas and propane vehicles for those that run on gasoline.

But, as in Phoenix and Mesa, some of Glendale's newest vehicles are at least capable of running on another type of alternative fuel: ethanol. Fleets for state agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality also have supplemented their ranks with so-called flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on gasoline or E85 (a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline).

In fact, Arizona law requires three-quarters of all new vehicles purchased by most state agencies since 2001 to be capable of running on an alternative fuel.

The law doesn't say the fleet vehicles have to burn the alternative fuel, though.

And because of the lack of filling stations stocking E85, the majority of government-owned flex-fuel vehicles in the Phoenix area (not to mention privately owned ones), are not burning the new fuel. They're using only gasoline.

Only a few gas stations that will have E85 pumps are under construction in the Valley. Now, there's one state-owned and one public E85 facility in the county, each in downtown Phoenix.

Phoenix has no current plans to install an E85 pump at any of its facilities. Nor does Glendale or Mesa.

The point to all this is that ethanol, like natural gas, may never be widely used in the Valley — and, even if it is, ethanol has its own baggage.

One problem, according to experts, is that increased use of ethanol could very well make the Valley's air pollution worse.

It wasn't so long ago that optimists claimed heavy government use of natural-gas-powered vehicles would spark a revolution for the rest of us. New filling stations were supposed to sprout all over the Valley as consumers bought these vehicles, spurring automakers to build even more.

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest

Here in Utah, we don't have such a problem... We have something like 20 CNG fueling stations, and about 95% of the state's 2.5 million people live in a 90x20 mile strip. Natural gas here also works out to about $.85/gallon, which is pretty sweet as well...


This article does a great job discussing problems related to vehicles and air pollution. The one solution -- die young -- leaves something to be desired.

Phoenix Concert Tickets