Town embracing electric
By Mark Reaman
The phrase “plug ‘em in” rather than “fill ‘er up” is becoming more appropriate with the town of Crested Butte’s municipal workers who use the town vehicle fleet. It is not a secret that the town of Crested Butte likes most things electric, and it is showing in their municipal vehicles as almost 25% of the fleet is already either electric or hybrid. Those EVs and hybrids range from an electric riding mower to three Tesla marshal police cars and two front-end hybrid loaders.
The town first purchased a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) to replace a diesel-fueled watering truck in 2005. Since then, 18 more EVs or hybrids have been added to the 80-vehicle town fleet and consideration is being given to purchase an e-dump truck.
Crested Butte sustainability coordinator Dannah Leeman said that the Crested Butte Climate Action Plan states that “the town will work toward converting its entire fleet of vehicles to zero emissions alternatives as vehicles need to be replaced.” She said that goal is being actively pursued.
“This isn’t just buying a few electric vehicles to present an image to the public, this is a real effort to embrace EVs for town work. It’s not just about reducing our greenhouse gas impacts, it helps with things like the air quality in our small town. An EV has a lot less emissions than a diesel vehicle for example and that is good on a number of fronts,” Leeman said.
The CB public works department the marshals, and the parks and rec department are on the front lines. Currently the town owns seven so-called NEVs (Neighborhood Electric Vehicles used to transport people and equipment for small jobs), three Tesla sedans equipped for police use, three Ford transit vans, two electric patrol motorcycles, one mower along with a Ford Escape hybrid and two front-end hybrid loaders.
Leeman said the two hybrid front-end loaders have probably cut diesel use for such machines in half. The town is looking next to buy an electric dump truck from Peterbilt.
“The heavy machinery has to meet certain performance standards and (public works director) Shea Earley has said the first priority is that the machines have to function as intended. If they don’t, the town knows it has to be able to pivot as functionality is most important,” she explained. “Overall, the electric vehicles (EVs) we have purchased work great, and our public works department is happy with their year-round performance in our climate. They’re dependable and reduce our fuel and vehicle maintenance costs. Specifically, the Teslas handle extremely well in the snow.”
The electric vehicles are admittedly more expensive than their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts. Town officials estimate the price difference could be about 40% at initial purchase. “However, we see a much lower cost with charging and maintenance,” Leeman explained. “Electricity is cheaper than gas per unit, and we don’t have to do oil changes or buy things like oil filters, etc., for electric engines. The regular maintenance on an electric vehicle typically only includes brakes and tires. Tires have to be replaced more frequently on an EV than with ICE vehicles due to their extra weight, but the brakes last much longer with their regenerative braking technology. NEVs are typically much cheaper than the larger ICE vehicles that they’re meant to replace, but those too have gone up in cost.”
The Teslas probably are the most high-profile town EVs and the marshals seem to really like them. “The vehicles run great, and they all handle extremely well in the snow because they’re heavier than ICE vehicles. In addition to their weight, the Teslas are especially stable in the snow because of their corrective driving software,” Leeman said. “The vehicle can adjust power going to each wheel and activate the brakes to prevent slippage. According to one marshal, the Tesla is ‘invincible’ on icy streets. In the winter, the batteries do see around a 40% decrease in range, but that’s not a huge issue up here for Public Works or the Marshals because the vehicles aren’t driving for long trips; usually just around town.”
Of course, nothing works perfectly and the town’s EVs, especially the Teslas, have had their issues. Some of the cabin functions and auxiliary electrical features have caused what were described as significant problems with the Tesla police vehicles. The marshals have reported frozen aerodynamic door handles and trunk spaces because there is no direct heating or defrosting capabilities for those spaces. Defrosting the vehicle also drains the battery, but Leeman said defrosting while plugged in is one way to get around that issue. Last winter, one Tesla’s heating went out completely, creating difficult access to the cabin and trunks. Marshals have also reported door panels falling off, which can make it nearly impossible to transport a suspect safely (or at all) because the door isn’t working correctly.
Because the Teslas are so specialized, they have to be repaired by a certified Tesla dealer while under warranty. The Crested Butte Teslas normally head to the dealer in Colorado Springs for needed repairs. Leeman said that can take an inconvenient amount of time, fuel and labor.
Town has seven charger stations that amount to 14 charging ports. Two are located in the public works yard and one by the marshal’s office. The ChargePoint level 2 charging stations seem to require more repair and maintenance than any of the EVs. They break easily and need frequent software updates to fix issues.
While all police vehicles must be modified after market with police equipment, the Model Y Teslas are tricky because of their all-glass roof; it’s not an easy base to attach police lights to. The Model Ys also require a lift kit installation so that they have decent snow clearance for the winter.
“As expected, the marshals do experience increased charging times in cold temperatures,” Leeman said. “They must plan carefully with their charging rotations, and in the winter when charging and battery life are less efficient, that’s even more cumbersome, especially without a covered parking space for easy defrosting. We see on average a 40% decrease in range with the EVs and a longer charging times because the cold temperatures affect the efficiency of the electricity. It doesn’t heavily impact most of the fleet since they’re able to plug in overnight at the public works yard, but the marshals have some difficulty with charging because of their shift work, uncovered parking and fewer chargers at their office.”
Leeman said like gas and diesel vehicles, EVs don’t last forever. “We keep the EVs on a 10-year replacement schedule to make sure we’re keeping up with technology changes, but the lithium batteries have a longer life than that. Because the town started adopting EVs many years ago, we’ve actually replaced one or two of our NEVs because they were up for replacement, so we’re on our second generation of EVs!”
As for those batteries, “We’ve only had to replace the lead acid batteries on some of the older NEVs so far, and those are recycled like you would recycle an ICE vehicle battery,” she said. “No lithium batteries have been replaced, so we’re not sure how yet difficult those will be to dispose of or recycle.”
The future of the Crested Butte fleet is headed toward more electric. “The town is embracing EVs as a means to reduce our scope 1 greenhouse gas emissions. We have five electric pickup trucks and one Chevy Bolt that have been on order for three years, but with supply and distribution challenges, we are still waiting to receive those,” Leeman said. “Over the next 15 years, we have 37 EV purchases planned as part of our vehicle replacement schedule. As technology improves and more options for electric heavy-duty equipment reaches the market, the number of planned EV purchases may increase if it makes sense for our town operations and budget.”
As the technology changes and improves, Leeman said the hope is that the town of Crested Butte rides that wave and moves toward a fleet of electric vehicles. Plug ‘em in!