Sustainability has become a byword for many commercial fleets today — often as an extension of their companies’ green initiatives designed to cut the overall carbon footprint.
The good news is that there are numerous solutions available to fit to the fleet and its customers’ needs to make a fleet more sustainable. The downside is alt-fuel vehicle purchases can be budget busters.
However, there is money available from local, regional, state, federal and even private sources that can go a long way to funding the purchase of alt-fuel vehicles to transform a traditional gasoline- or diesel-powered fleet into a sustainable fleet.
The biggest mistake fleet managers make when looking for grants to fund their alt-fuel vehicle purchases is chasing dollars without a solid plan, according to Bill Van Amburg, senior vice president of CALSTART, a national, nonprofit advanced transportation technologies organization founded in 1992 to promote a clean transportation industry.
“CALSTART tries to stress with fleets that there are dollars out there, but the first place to start isn’t looking for dollars. The first place to start is the fleet plan, and really lay out what you want to do,” Van Amburg says.
Chasing the dollars without a plan will typically end in a scenario with a fleet manager finding funding for one particular alternative fuel and deciding, based on the available funds, to pursue the funding without regard to the needs of the fleet and its customers.
Instead, fleets should develop a fleet and transition plan for the technology, determine what platforms make sense for the technologies that interest the fleet, determine how many of the vehicles are desired, and decide on the time frame to acquire them.
“It’s much more powerful to go to a funding agency and know exactly what you want to do and write in a proposal that you have a five-year plan, have laid out an implementation strategy, and explain why these funds are needed, because this is exactly what the fleet needs to do this year. And, this will let the fleet do it faster, instead of saying ‘I heard you had some money and maybe I’ll buy two of these things.’ There’s a big difference in those proposals,” Van Amburg says.
Planning doesn’t involve just knowing what the fleet needs or wants. Timing also plays an important part in the process.
While there are different types of grant funding methods, the traditional one involves submitting an application and receiving funds directly from the granting organization.
Complexity arises after the grant is approved and before the money is disbursed to the fleet.
“This has happened several times with fleets we’ve worked with,” Van Amburg says. “They go through the proposal process and get picked for that calendar year. However, they can’t buy the vehicles and hope to get reimbursed until they’re under contract with the agency, and the contract doesn’t come into effect until the next year. Then, sometimes the dollars run out. You really have to know the time horizon of the grant funding or whatever the funding source is.”
It isn’t enough to have a fleet plan. Running in parallel with developing the plan is developing relationships with funders, service providers, and even other fleet managers to make the fleet stand out during the application process.
“As the funders get to know you and get a sense of what you need and what you know about the subject, they might keep an eye out for you. So, when your proposal comes in, they can put a name to it, and can say, ‘I know that fleet, they’re real, they’re committed,’” Van Amburg says.
At the very least, potential funders should be called and, ideally, met in person.
It’s important to keep in mind that relationships with funders will likely be for the long haul. “You need to build long-term relationships for a few reasons. It’s how you’re going to be successful when you apply. The funder will know how serious you are. And, you’ll probably need more than one source of funding,” Van Amburg explains.
This is what John Clements did when pursuing funding for electric and hybrid school buses for his district. (Clements recently retired as director of transportation for Kings Canyon Unified School District in Reedley, Calif.)
According to Van Amburg, Clements developed a solid plan and built strong relationships with everyone he would need to involve in the process.
In total, Kings Canyon secured funding from four or five different sources, including using vouchers, local sources and regional sources of funding. Clements credited his personal relationships for his funding success.
“I have been very blessed to work for a supportive public school district for nearly 39 years that has allowed me to participate in state, local and federal clean air workgroup meetings,” he said prior to his retirement. “My attendance, along with funding opportunity workshops, has enabled me to build working relationships with various agencies and their staffs. The knowledge I have gained has aided me to use multiple funding sources to provide near full funding for my district and neighboring schools to obtain these clean emissions alternative-fuel school buses and white fleet vehicles.”
Joining local chapters of Clean Cities, for example, can give fleet managers access to information about grants available in the area and access to potential funders.
One-on-one relationships with fleet peers who have received grants can also be useful in determining what worked and what didn’t and traps to avoid when asking for funds.