June 30, 2016

Alternative Fuels Help Ensure America's National Parks Stay Green for Another Century

We have been fortunate and are very grateful to have collaborated with the DOE and Clean Cities coalitions over the past five years to leverage their technical expertise and resources to help NPS achieve our sustainability and energy savings goals. As budgetary pressures increase, these partnerships will become even more important to our stewardship efforts as we head into our next 100 years.   

Vic Knox, Associate Director, Park Planning, Facilities, and Lands for the National Park Service, Washington, D.C.

More than 140 years ago, the establishment of Yellowstone National Park ignited a movement to safeguard pristine lands around the nation and the world. Some years later, the National Park Service (NPS), a new federal agency designed to preserve current and future national parks and monuments across the United States, was born out of an act signed by President Woodrow Wilson. The purpose of the NPS, as the act stated, was to "... conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

In 2016, the NPS celebrates its 100th year and is seeing interest like never before. The allure of America's national parks draws more than 300 million people each year from far and wide seeking to experience the same "unimpaired" scenery, nature, and history. The number of visitors, NPS staff, and concessioners driving personal and fleet vehicles has made that aim more difficult though, as transportation now accounts for 85% of the average park unit's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In its vigilance to protect the parks, the NPS teamed with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through the Clean Cities National Parks Initiative (CCNPI), a collaboration specifically aimed at bringing together the resources of the Clean Cities program and the NPS to minimize petroleum use and reduce emissions in the parks.

Spotlight: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

While Great Smoky Mountains (GRSM) already holds the title for America's most visited national park, in recent years the park has also been working towards another claim to fame—establishing itself as a leader in alternative fuels and advanced vehicles.

When GRSM chose to apply for and implement a multi-phase CCNPI project, it not only benefitted from its geographical footprint that includes two states (Tennessee and North Carolina), but also from the support of two Clean Cities coalitions. GRSM collaborated with long-time partners, East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition (ETCleanFuels) and LSCVC—led by coordinators Jonathan Overly and Bill Eaker, respectively—to pursue project approval and funding. The park received two rounds of funding from CCNPI in 2013 and 2014, and is currently in the final phases of implementing the project. GRSM's relationship with Clean Cities began long before CCNPI, however. In 2004, ETCleanFuels engaged GRSM in one of its first projects as a coalition—using B20 (20% biodiesel, 80% gasoline) in its park maintenance vehicles. Today, all of the diesel vehicles in the park's fleet, including 49 pieces of large equipment, now run on B20 year-round.

In addition, GRSM uses bioheat—heating oil blended with biodiesel—to heat the park's headquarters offices. Similarly, LSCVC assisted the park in acquiring more than $250,000 in Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program funding to build a biodiesel fueling station and purchase low-speed electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid electric vehicles that park rangers use for visitor education and a variety of other tasks.

Building on these previous partnerships, GRSM is now working closely with both coalitions to install four charging stations, including two DC fast chargers, which would be the first of their kind to be installed in a national park. The EVSE will allow visitors from nearby urban PEV hubs, including Atlanta, to visit the park, charge up, enjoy the park while emitting zero tailpipe pollutants, and head home.

"Putting this equipment into use will help us meet our goal of reducing our GHG emissions up to 20% by 2020," said GRSM Superintendent Cassius Cash. GRSM has also added three low-speed EVs, converted five mowers to run on propane, and implemented idle-reduction signage and education programs. The project will continue with six scheduled pickup truck propane conversions and two propane fueling station installations, scheduled to be completed in 2016.

Recognizing the importance of partners in overcoming project challenges, GRSM and the coalitions also focused on involving key players from the start. For example, a strategic partnership with Black Bear Solar Institute led GRSM to Nissan Motor Company, who donated DC fast chargers. Overly assisted the park in determining the appropriate fees for use of the charging equipment. The park then connected with the Great Smoky Mountains Association to assist with operations and payment collection.

"The Centennial Initiative motivated us to become more active with our coalitions and be a leader in emissions and petroleum reductions," said Teresa Cantrell, GRSM Facility Management Program Manager. "My advice to any park is to get involved with your local Clean Cities organizations. Our local coordinators are wonderful; they helped us with every aspect of this project. They know the technology—what's new and what works. They were able to steer us and keep us on track."

Eaker echoed this sentiment: "CCNPI expanded GRSM's use of alternative fuels and allows visitors to protect and enjoy our natural resources. We love our parks, and we love working with them on such a critical mission."

Five years later, 29 parks together with 19 Clean Cities coalitions have completed more than 30 CCNPI projects. The projects have impacted nearly 70 million visitors and cumulatively reduce about 70,000 gasoline gallon equivalents of petroleum each year. The Initiative also strives to inspire and motivate park visitors to take similar actions when they return home or to their place of business.

"Clean Cities' national goal of implementing alternative fuels and cleaner, more efficient vehicles is a perfect complement to the NPS mission of preserving our national treasures and resources," said Dennis Smith, national Clean Cities director. "However, the real work happens at the local level. Clean Cities coalitions across the country are partnering with individual parks to introduce new fuels and vehicles into their fleets, leverage resources, and provide technical support. Together, they're also educating visitors on the energy and environmental benefits of improving fuel economy and using alternative fuels."

Parks Invest in a Diverse Portfolio of Technologies

CCNPI projects run the gamut of petroleum reduction strategies, each focused on addressing the needs of an individual park and the surrounding community. Oftentimes a park's first priority is replacing its fleet vehicles with efficient and alternative fuel vehicles. For example, in recent years, many parks have purchased plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), along with the associated electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE).

Converting or replacing lawn equipment can also yield significant benefits. The National Mall and Memorial Parks in Washington, D.C., for instance, are in the process of deploying seven propane mowers, thanks to a donation from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC), to maintain more than 1,000 acres of greenspace that surrounds the country's national monuments. This equipment is expected to cut GHG emissions in half, compared to their conventional counterparts. PERC has also donated propane mowers to Blue Ridge Parkway, Mammoth Cave National Park, and Yellowstone National Park in support of CCNPI efforts.

While the first formal CCNPI projects did not kick off until 2011, Clean Cities and the NPS have been working together since the 1990s. For example, in 1999 Mammoth Cave National Park started using E85, a high-level ethanol blend containing 51%-83% ethanol depending on season and geography.

Today the park runs all fleet vehicles on alternative fuels, and continues to benefit greatly from its partnership with Kentucky Clean Fuels, the local Clean Cities coalition led by longtime Coordinator Melissa Howell. Since 2010, visitors at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon have gotten around in compressed natural gas trolleys.

Unique Outreach Campaigns Engage Visitors

In addition to leading by example with their own vehicles, national parks are also educating their visitors through signage and educational presentations about ways to reduce petroleum and emissions. A majority of the outreach campaign for Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, employs a robust array of signs and vehicle decals from the CCNPI Green Rides Toolkit.

"Acadia National Park is proud to participate in the CCNPI. The Green Rides Toolkit is helping the park reduce emissions and educate visitors about the environmental benefits of reducing petroleum use," said Acadia Superintendent Kevin Schneider.

Schneider said Acadia has taken their promise to cut petroleum use a step further by partnering with their state department of transportation and local environmental groups to operate the propane-powered Island Explorer bus system, which provides fare-free sustainable transportation throughout the park and gateway communities.

Clean Cities Network Advances NPS Projects

Part of the success of CCNPI is the initiative's ability to convene all key parties for a successful project. National parks have existing relationships with their concessioners, gateway communities, historical associations, and other partners. On the other hand, Clean Cities coordinators can easily tap their local and national network of vehicle and infrastructure providers, industry associations and experts, and the media. Together, this provides all of the ingredients to a successful alternative fuel project.

Through its relationship with Land of Sky Clean Vehicles Coalition (LSCVC), for instance, Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway National Park was able to partner with PERC to deploy propane pickup trucks, mowers, and a fueling station. Additionally, Twin Cities Clean Cities helped bring together a diverse set of stakeholders, including municipalities, state parks and other agencies, and a local museum, to install 12 public charging stations within the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Minnesota.

As the NPS heads into the next century with a focus on sustainability, Clean Cities will continue to be an important partner in achieving its goals. In fact, based on the success of previous and ongoing CCNPI projects, DOE and NPS are working to formalize the program until at least 2020.

"NPS has many stakeholders and people who care about our parks and the natural beauty they showcase," said Vic Knox, Associate Director, Park Planning, Facilities, and Lands for the NPS. "We have been fortunate and are very grateful to have collaborated with DOE and Clean Cities coalitions over the past five years to leverage their technical expertise and resources to help NPS achieve our sustainability and energy savings goals. As budgetary pressures increase, these partnerships will become even more important to our stewardship efforts as we head into our next 100 years."

Spotlight: Zion National Park

Nearly 2,000 miles from GRSM, Zion National Park (Zion) in Utah has also experienced the benefits of CCNPI first hand. The Zion Group, which includes Zion, Cedar Breaks National Monument, and Pipe Spring National Monument, acquired four plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), installed seven public and five private charging stations. The group also installed idle-reduction signage and implemented education programs.

"This project gave us an opportunity to help meet our petroleum and GHG emissions reductions goals, while preserving our lands," said Alex Barajas, environmental protection specialist at the Zion Group. While Zion originally applied for the 2013 CCNPI grant independently, a 2015 operational agreement between the three parks served as a mechanism to expand the project and spread the wealth. As a result, each of these parks now has at least one new PHEV, and public charging will soon be available at all three parks.

After only 12 months, the Zion Group's PHEVs have already saved more than 500 gallons of petroleum and 5.5 tons of GHG emissions. Through their partnership with the Zion Natural History Association, the parks also sell vouchers for the public to use the charging stations. Zion is no stranger to alternative fuels, as the park's fleet of 155 vehicles includes 42 alternative fuel vehicles. With the help of Utah Clean Cities Coalition (UCCC), Zion began using propane shuttle buses in its fleet in 2000, a project which Barajas says, "Stands up to the test of time as a great environmental initiative."

"Zion has always demonstrated leadership when it comes to alternative fuels," said Robin Erickson, UCCC executive director, who has been instrumental in bringing together key players for the park's alternative fuel initiatives. "As a result, we have seen a trickle-down effect with several other parks in the region becoming interested in EV charging, as well as hotels and others in the gateway community of Springdale."

Zion remains poised as a leader in the promotion and adoption of alternative fuels. In the near future, the park plans to increase the number of electric drive vehicles in its fleet and looks forward to sharing its experiences with other parks in the state.

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