Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Power. Green Mountain Power is testing out hybrid bucket trucks, but is looking forward to technology advancements.

Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Power.
Green Mountain Power is testing out hybrid bucket trucks, but is looking forward to technology advancements.

- By Joanne Tucker

After overhauling the company due to a merger a year and a half ago, Green Mountain Power (GMP) underwent major changes to its fleet, from beefing up its pool vehicle program to analyzing truck purchasing, as well as other initiatives focused on lowering emissions and cutting out the fleet fat.

Fleet manager Jeremy Baker, who has been in the position for about nine months for the Colchester, Vt.-based electric utility, says the company committed to saving $144 million in the first 10 years of the merger with Central Vermont Public Service Corp. as a guarantee to its 250,000-plus customers throughout the Vermont area.

Fleet and equipment were heavily impacted by service district consolidations as the two companies merged. “We had a lot of duplication between the companies,” Baker says. “For fleet, it was about how we can reduce emissions and operate more cleanly.”

Out with the Old

Just since Oct. 1, 2013, GMP sold 17 vehicles at auction in its now 550-unit fleet (includes equipment and trailers). “And that’s going to continue,” Baker says, as service territories and facilities consolidate, therefore lowering the overall transportation needs than what the merger resulted in.

The company that GMP merged with offered personal mileage reimbursement for many of its company drivers — aside from larger equipment and service trucks — and had no pool fleet, whereas GMP did. Now, GMP is growing its pool fleet to minimize personal mileage reimbursement, while the overall fleet continues to shrink.

Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Power. While the overall size of the fleet is shrinking, GMP is growing its pool vehicle program. President and CEO Mary Powell is in front of a hybrid company vehicle.

Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Power.
While the overall size of the fleet is shrinking, GMP is growing its pool vehicle program. President and CEO Mary Powell is in front of a hybrid company vehicle.

The pool fleet allows greater vehicle utilization and ensures drivers are in safe and well-maintained vehicles. Plus, it gives the company control over fleet emissions. “Every one of the new pool vehicles will be an EV or a hybrid,” Baker says. The pool fleet is mostly comprised of Chevrolet Volts, Toyota Prius models, the Ford Escape and Transit Connect EVs. The company as well has several low-speed electric utility vehicles from Polaris’ GEM to use for nearby errands.

GMP is also focusing on its pool fleet program due to its larger EV initiatives. “We want our employees to drive those electric vehicles and champion that out in the public,” Baker says. GMP started a new program toward the end of 2013 to help employees actually buy a personal EV by offering them a monetary incentive if they show proof of purchase.

“If they agree to be an ambassador with the vehicle for the first year, they also get a little bumper sticker that says, ‘Ask me about my electric vehicle,’” Baker says, adding that those who become ambassadors receive an additional financial incentive.

Since offering the incentive and focusing on pool vehicles, the GMP facilities department is aggressively installing charging stations, which are powered by solar energy where possible, at GMP offices. This is coupled with the company installing EV charging stations in public areas for a total of six public stations so far. “This way we can get feedback from the employees and if they’re getting over range anxiety, how they’re getting around those barriers, and if those barriers are real or not,” Baker says.[PAGEBREAK]

Using Operator Feedback

Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Power. Since merging with another small utility less than two years ago, Green Mountain Power has been drastically reducing its fleet size.

Photos courtesy of Green Mountain Power.
Since merging with another small utility less than two years ago, Green Mountain Power has been drastically reducing its fleet size.

Throughout the merger for the service truck portion of the fleet, Baker says that operator feedback played an important role. “You’ve got two companies coming together and each with an appetite for specific brands,” Baker says, so coming to a census on the truck specifications came down to operators and mechanics.

To hammer out their differences, GMP took the two most recently purchased trucks from each utility, put them in a garage, and had operators and mechanics do a walk-around with manufacturer representatives. “Overall it was carte blanche,” Baker says, with it coming down to individual operator preferences. 

But, an overall trend did emerge, Baker adds, with operators leaning to International trucks, and Altec units for buckets and Terex units for digger derricks. The company is currently in the process of buying four additional bucket trucks. “The four operators of those buckets are right there in the decision-making process,” he says.

While operators have personal preferences, Baker says that if he had to point to one thing they learned was that there were a lot of pre-conceived notions on what the operators liked. For example, the truck colors were different between the two fleets, but selecting orange over yellow didn’t ruffle any feathers. “It’s all about just getting out there and talking to people, and getting to know the cultural aspects of these two companies and not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says, adding that it also just takes time. “People are really thinking of us more as one company now and those dividers are going away.”

Evaluating and Re-evaluating

Baker says as hybrid bucket truck technology changes, he continues to keep operators informed and involved on that technology as well. He says for the hybrid bucket trucks currently in fleet, GMP is still looking at the data and talking with other utilities in terms of potential ROI. “We feel that the models we purchased were some of the first, so we’re hoping that the industry makes some advancements,” he says.

The biggest positive comment on the performance of hybrid trucks that Baker receives from operators is in regards to noise reduction. Providing services in many congested residential areas, GMP’s customers have also commented about the low hum of the vehicles.

The hybrid trucks fit in with GMP’s anti-idling policy, in which drivers are mandated to turn the trucks off unless the windows are frozen or other extreme weather. “The common sense rule applies,” Baker says, especially operating in the recently crazed weather conditions.

Increasing costs for bucket trucks and specialty equipment and other factors have GMP re-evaluating its existing replacement cycle of 10 years — possibly extending it to a 12-year period. “We may be going in the opposite direction of a good portion of the industry, but we feel obligated to make this work in the interests of keeping costs down for our customers,” Baker says. “Our new spec for bucket trucks that we plan on purchasing in 2014 is designed with this 12-year cycle in mind.”

The company has eight onsite fueling stations for biodiesel and unleaded regular, and performs regular, in-house maintenance. The four shops work in two shifts, one 8-hour day shift and one 10-hour night shift, providing coverage from 7 a.m. to midnight, which helps lessen the impact on vehicle downtime.

Decreasing Failure and Accident Rates

Equipment maintenance and testing is largely done in house. GMP performs dielectric testing on its aerial units and hydraulics twice a year.

While the operators are supposed to check the mechanical properties of each unit visually every day as part of their pre-trip inspections, Baker says the company’s goal is to be thorough, ensure the safety of operators, and decrease failure rates from anything they may be unable to detect by eye. “It sends a real clear message to the frontline employees that we’re very serious about safety, and for them to know that it’s tested, gives them more assurance when they’re working on a line,” he adds.

For example, dielectric testing once showed the hydraulic fluid that GMP had by the drum was failing, which gave GMP the opportunity to move away from that product and go to a more reliable fluid before it caused any major failures or accidents.

Another focus of GMP is building a strong safety culture. The company’s president starts off every meeting with a safety discussion, for example, and employees are encouraged to talk about “near misses,” in which a report didn’t necessarily have to be filed but are the cases that remind operators how a near miss could easily turn into a real mess.

Self-reporting in general is stressed to operators, especially as the company grows its pool vehicles, which means more than one person is driving that vehicle in any given week. If there’s an issue with the car, the driver can’t assume that someone else already reported it. “We can’t fix it, unless we know about it,” Baker says. “That message is starting to make its way through the organization.”

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