Northwestern adds four ‘green’ vehicles to fleet

Kelli Nguyen, Reporter

To reduce Northwestern’s carbon footprint, the University has added four Polaris Global Electric Motorcars to its motor fleet.

The electric vehicles, currently in use by Facilities Management, are part of a sustainNU initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The price tag on a GEM can range anywhere from $1,200 to $1,600, depending on what it is equipped with, said Rob Whittier, director of the Office of Sustainability. The NU units were customized with tool shelves built into locking rear cabs, as well as University branding on the exterior.

To accompany the GEMs, Schneider Electric, an NU research partner, donated four charging stations to the University.

“We basically paid nothing for the stations themselves,” Whittier said. “We just had to install them.”

The stations are split between the North Campus and Segal Visitors Center parking structures. Each station has the capacity to charge two vehicles simultaneously for free.

The GEMs are cheaper, quieter and less intrusive than traditional trucks and vans, Whittier said. They also serve as a visual reminder of Northwestern’s efforts to promote sustainability, he said.

Transportation represents Northwestern’s third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and is separated into two categories: those produced by University-owned and operated vehicles and those produced by commuters.

“We’re responsible for trying to help commuters find more efficient ways to travel,” Whittier said. “In terms of our own fleet, we’re piloting a set of electric vehicles and basically the idea is that those will start to replace the trucks and vans that we have traditionally used in the campus fleet.”

One misconception about electric vehicles is that they are always neutral or carbon-free, Whittier said. In reality, their emissions stem from the electricity they use. The electricity that the University purchases to charge these vehicles is not completely carbon neutral, but NU purchases wind energy credits to offset about 50 percent of that electricity, he said.

“The vehicles have no emissions at the source, but electric vehicles do have an impact,” Whittier said.

ASG vice president of sustainability Christina Cilento said she has mixed feelings on the GEMs, pointing out that current technology does not allow electric vehicles to be completely emission-free.

“They are a great emblem of sustainability because they are more sustainable than gas,” the SESP junior said. “But the downside is that unless the electricity is from wind or something, they aren’t necessarily super, super sustainable.”

Whittier heads the transportation working group that proposed the idea for campus electric vehicles. The group comprises faculty, staff and students whose role it is to explore programs to decrease transportation emissions.

Along with the GEMs, the committee is investigating ways to promote public transportation, make the campus more bicycle and electric vehicle friendly and integrate carbon-reducing technology, said McCormick Prof. Mark Werwath, a member of the transportation working-group.

“We looked at things like how to get more people to use public transit,” Werwath said. “That was the motivation behind the 201 buses becoming free to WildCARD holders, which didn’t exist prior to this fall.”

As for the future, the purchase of another shipment of GEMs remains unclear.

“I’m relatively confident we will move forward with another batch of them,” Whittier said. “We just want to get a few more months of testing in and then maybe other groups like athletics and Student Affairs might jump on board at that point.”

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