Researchers Bolster Alternative Fuel Vehicles and Infrastructure To Improve Florida’s Hurricane Resilience

Sept. 15, 2021

When events like tropical storms or other unforeseen crises disrupt a state's primary supply of gasoline and diesel, emergency fleet efforts can become hampered as access to fuel is restricted or completely unavailable.

hurricane

One promising pathway to efficient and organized natural disaster recovery efforts, however, lies in bolstering alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure. By developing systems that rely on more abundant alternative fuels like compressed natural gas (CNG), propane, and electricity, emergency fleets are better equipped to react to, and recover from, natural disasters.

To prepare for those types of emergency events, researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have partnered with the state of Florida to create a new Transportation Fuel Resilience Plan. The plan—developed in close collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy's Florida-based Clean Cities coalitions, the Florida Office of Energy, University of South Florida, and ICF Consulting—aims to help the state better leverage alternative fuel vehicles for evacuation and recovery efforts when hurricanes cause shortages of gasoline and diesel. NREL's deep expertise is derived from decades of analytical and hands-on technical support with alternative fuel fleets to solve these types of challenges.

“This project is creating a tangible selling point for further exploration and development of alternative fuels, regardless of buy-in on the issues of climate change and petroleum reduction,” said NREL's Caley Johnson, a senior transportation market analyst and co-author of the plan.

Like many coastal states, Florida has continued to experience more frequent and powerful tropical storms and hurricanes in recent years, cutting off access to many necessities, including petroleum. Ships typically supply petroleum through ports in Florida, but when natural disasters force the ports to close, the fuel supply can become suspended. That leaves civilians and frontline workers stranded along evacuation routes and unable to help the disabled petroleum-dependent systems or people who rely on them.

Alternatively, natural gas—which directly fuels CNG vehicles and also fuels power plants that provide power to electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE)—is transported to Florida via pipelines, and propane fuel is transported via rail. These supply chains have proven more robust and resilient in emergency situations than ocean-based transport dependent on port access.

Plan Offers Guidance on Siting Stations for Greatest Accessibility and Impact, Identifies Uses for Existing Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Because alternative fuel vehicle fleets tend to depend on a single “home” station to ensure adequate fuel availability, siting for optimal locations that will not become inundated with floodwaters during a hurricane is of the utmost importance. The Transportation Fuel Resilience Plan will help local entities throughout Florida decide where to install new alternative fuel stations while considering the locations of hurricane shelters, hospitals, and other recovery systems in relation to these sites. With more fueling infrastructure, more reliable supply chains for propane, CNG, and electricity could bolster resilient transportation options for aspects of disaster relief that could be hindered by supply interruptions for diesel-fueled vehicles.

Numerous propane, CNG, and electric vehicles are already used in Florida, which could be utilized in hurricane operations. Propane could fuel school buses for evacuation (especially to emergency shelters located in schools) and refrigerated trucks for food delivery, CNG could power trash trucks equipped to clear streets and utility bucket trucks for repairing electric lines, and electric cars and pickup trucks could transport light loads like medications and building inspectors.

Website Paves the Way for Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Use

According to 100-year flood maps, many existing EVSE, CNG, and propane fueling locations are likely to be underwater or isolated from compatible vehicles during a hurricane. To remedy potential station communication issues, the NREL team created a website to complement the Transportation Resilience Plan with information that enables alternative vehicle fleet operators to assess the likelihood fueling stations will remain operable during emergency scenarios and whether those stations are compatible with their vehicles. The website will bolster the reliability of propane, CNG, and electric vehicles by facilitating communication between the alternative fuel vehicle fleets and prospective fueling stations.

“This website will be a central hub for resilience planners and fleet managers to find information from the state, counties, and Clean Cities coalitions. For the first time, users will have access to valuable information right at their fingertips, such as station locations and details, county-specific emergency management contact info, and other resources such as existing shelter locations and evacuation routes,” said NREL's Lauren Spath Luhring, a software development researcher on the project. “These resources will allow all alternative fuel drivers to prepare and plan their evacuation route ahead of time as well as help fleet managers do their jobs more efficiently during disasters.”

Researchers will incorporate the website data into the final Transportation Resilience Plan to share with state resilience planners, fleet managers, and fueling station owners. Information will then be distributed through a series of webinars and workshops focused on strategies for improving Florida's transportation energy resiliency during extreme weather. The Clean Cities Coalition Network also provides a trusted avenue for other states across the nation to learn from this work and implement resilience plans of their own.

Alternative Fuels Offer Prospects for Transforming Widespread Disaster Relief Efforts

Alternative fuels have the potential to transform disaster relief. In the future, other states along the Gulf and East coasts could replicate this research and resiliency plan for scenarios that similarly threaten their primary fuel supply. Western states may also find value in using an energy resiliency plan to help mitigate wildfire emergencies. For example, the use of alternative fuels rather than electricity could power emergency shelters and eliminate the possibility of electrical fires, with the potential for causing further danger and growth of wildfires. When implemented strategically, alternative fuel vehicles can provide more reliable transportation options that together improve the resiliency of whole city systems during natural disasters and other emergencies.

“The Plan should enable local governments and stakeholders to better utilize alternative fuel vehicles for hurricane-related evacuation, emergency, and recovery operations when gasoline and diesel are likely to be in short supply. Furthermore, it should inform the placement of new EVSEs and help coordinate the charging of personal EVs during evacuations,” Johnson said. “I'm optimistic we can replicate the methods and insights we've gained from working with Florida to empower others to find alternative fueling solutions that can better insulate their own communities from natural disasters.”  

Learn more about NREL's transportation and mobility research, including vehicle technology integration research. For more information on alternative fuels and advanced vehicles, visit DOE's Alternative Fuel Data Center.