NREL's Winning Hand of Clean Transportation Tools
Fleet managers and individual drivers alike can use the innovative data found in NREL's suite of transportation tools to green up their travel decisions.
A truly sustainable transportation future will only gain traction and widespread adoption if everyone—from policymakers, to fuel providers and fleet managers, to individual drivers—makes thoughtful, informed choices about the greenest way to get from point A to point B. But you can't make significant decisions without powerful information. That kind of action requires some powerful tools—which NREL has in spades.
Alternative Fuels Data Center: The Royal Flush of Advanced Transportation Information
The Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), a resource of the U.S. Department of Energy's Clean Cities program administered by NREL, is an online portfolio of information related to alternative fuels and advanced transportation technologies. The website is a powerhouse for all kinds of decision makers—supplying resources for fleets to reduce petroleum use or an individual considering the purchase of an all-electric vehicle, and everyone in between.
As a means of providing this information, the AFDC features more than a dozen tools, including the Vehicle Cost Calculator, Laws and Incentives Data, Petroleum Reduction Planning Tool, BioFuels Atlas, and more. NREL developed most of the AFDC tools, but as Johanna Levene, a manager in the Strategic Energy Analysis Center for the team that runs the AFDC, pointed out, "We easily pull in and partner with different national labs and organizations. The site is very much a clearinghouse for unbiased alternative fuels data and information."
According to Levene, the most popular AFDC tool is the Alternative Fueling Station Locator. The tool allows users to find stations that offer electric vehicle charging, E85, biodiesel, natural gas, propane, and hydrogen. The data can then be sorted by geographic location, along a route, by public or private stations, or by payment options.
The information can now be accessed in a variety of ways as well, which has broadened its appeal. "Users of the Station Locator now have the ability to download and slice and dice any of the data into a spreadsheet for easy analysis," said Levene. "We now have an iPhone app and we've developed a widget for organizations and companies, like BMW and Nissan, to embed code in their websites and allow access to the locator information."
One satisfied end-user of the Station Locator is Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education and Research Council. A self-described "alternative fuel advocate of 30 years," Perkins has spent much of his adult life driving propane fuel vehicles and is an avid supporter of NREL's work and the data provided by the AFDC.
Perkins knows first-hand that his propane clients rely on the Station Locator, especially during large-scale fleet deployments. According to Perkins, the fleet managers use the Station Locator almost exclusively to plot their routes to fuel their vehicles as few times, and as efficiently, as possible.
"But the biggest benefit of the Station Locator is giving users or potential users the peace of mind that refueling their vehicle is no longer a challenge," said Perkins. "The locator really begins to give the alternative fuel user, who has made the choice for all the right reasons—for savings to the company, for reduction of imported fuels, for cleaner air and cleaner water in the communities they drive—the security and peace of mind that wherever they travel, they can find a place to fill their vehicle."
Another Ace (or Two or Three) in the Hand: Fleet Tools
Where the AFDC is geared toward helping fleet managers with research and initial deployment, NREL also hosts a suite of fleet tools, such as the Transportation Secure Data Center (TSDC), Fleet DNA, DRIVE, and FASTSim, to help fleet managers dig deeper into operational efficiencies and match technologies to their specific fleet patterns.
The TSDC, for example, provides free access to detailed transportation data from a variety of travel surveys and studies, including second-by-second GPS readings for millions of miles of travel, along with vehicle characteristics and demographics. It's a data storage warehouse that offers invaluable information to decision makers, such as city planners, to help them with road planning or infrastructure needs.
Greg Newmark, senior research analyst for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, is one proponent of the TSDC and the value it can offer. One of Newmark's recent clients, an affordable housing advocacy group in California, wanted help with a study and he recommended using data from the TSDC.
"The charts we made ended up being very helpful in California politicians' decisions to contribute 10% of their cap and trade funds that limit GHG emissions," Newmark said. "The TSDC provided useful data for decision-makers. And the state passed what will be a $65 million increase in affordable housing funding, but will increase to $500 million per year."
For Newmark, one of the key benefits to the TSDC is that it makes data collected by a single agency easily available for free to researchers. "Since so many of the underlying studies for urban analysis are expensive to undertake and receive some amount of federal funding, the TSDC is a fantastic way to get more value out of the initial federal investment," said Newmark.
Staying in the Game for the Long Haul
"One of the coolest aspects of the AFDC is that it has been around since 1991—it's not a new asset," said Levene. "We've been sharing this data in all kinds of different formats for a very long time. We have that historical capability and we are known as a trusted source."
Levene recalls a day when she heard Google was planning its own type of alternative fuel station locator for its users. "They went to the AFDC and after taking a look, they realized that they couldn't improve upon the design and functionality, and now they just use our widget," said Levene.
For most, that would have been equivalent to winning a high-stakes poker match—but not for NREL's hardworking researchers, developers, and analysts. They continue to work tirelessly to improve on the information and functionality. After all, there's always more data to capture and more ways to analyze and visualize that data, and they aren't going to fold.
—Written by Kathy Cisar