New postal trucks can use gas blend or scarce ethanol

Environmentally friendly Alaska fleet cost $7 million

Posted: Friday, December 08, 2000

The U.S. Postal Service is replacing its fleet of city delivery vehicles in Alaska with environmentally friendly trucks that can burn either gasoline or ethanol, or any combination of the two fuels.

Nine of the Ford/Utilimaster Flex Fuel Vehicles recently were assigned to Juneau.

But Juneau doesn't have any ethanol pumps, nor does the rest of the state. And it isn't likely to show up at your local pit stop any time in the foreseeable future, said Jeff Cook, spokesman for Williams Alaska Petroleum Co.

"But when it is, we'll be ready," said Nancy Cain Schmitt, Postal Service spokeswoman in Alaska.

Ethanol, otherwise known as ethyl alcohol or moonshine, usually is derived from corn and can be used as either a stand-alone fuel or a gasoline additive. It more commonly is used as a fuel additive, as occurs in Anchorage during the winter as part of the city's clean air program. Ethanol oxygenates gasoline, making gasoline burn cleaner.

Cook said Williams mixes about 1.9 million gallons of ethanol (at a 10 percent mixture) into gasoline during the four months it's required.

Pure ethanol is expensive and would require separate storage tanks and pumps at a service station, Cook said.

Ethanol, when used as a fuel, is denatured or mixed with poison to make it undrinkable, according to the California Energy Commission. Ethanol more often is mixed and sold as E85, or 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The gasoline is added for better cold-weather starting to make flames visible (alcohol has a nearly invisible flame during daylight), the commission said.

The question is how to run the vehicles when there is no such fuel available while building a support infrastructure when there is no market for the fuel.

"It's a chicken-egg story," Cook said.

Sealaska Corp. wants to build a plant that turns wood into ethanol. The plant would be based somewhere in southern Southeast where most of Sealaska's timber resources are, said company spokesman Ross Soboleff.

The technology exists in a pilot plant but hasn't been used on the scale Sealaska is planning, he said. The Southeast Native regional corporation still is looking at the feasibility of the plant. But if everything went perfectly, the plant could be up and running in two to three years, Soboleff said.

A report made for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which opposes most logging in the Tongass National Forest, said the ethanol plant is not likely to attract any investors.

The plant would have a Southeast market in Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, where the postal trucks will be deployed. Alaska's trucks are part of a national order of more than 21,000 Flex Fuel Vehicles, or FFVs, planned to be delivered this year, according to Utilimaster.

Juneau's postal trucks arrived on a barge from Haines on Tuesday.

The trucks' aluminum bodies won't rust and have less maintenance costs, said Cain Schmitt of the postal service. The squat, low-slung, four-wheel-drive rigs can carry more packages than their older counterparts.

The Postal Service spent a little more than $7 million for Alaska's 305 flexible fuel vehicles. The $23,000 rigs will go to 12 communities throughout the state, replacing 316 seven-year-old Jeep Cherokees, Cain Schmitt said. Seven years is about the life span of city delivery trucks, she said.

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