City police are running through a gallon of gas every eight miles, making their vehicles almost as inefficient as the city’s garbage trucks and firetrucks, the Schenectady City Council learned Monday.
Energy Advisory Board Chairwoman Dana Swalla told the council that such figures prove the city needs to replace the traditional Crown Victorias with more efficient police cars.
Upgrading to a car that gets just 12 mpg would save the city $3,000 per car per year if fuel costs $4.50 per gallon, she said. It would also significantly reduce the amount of pollution created by the city.
That proposal is politically difficult, because the police are staunchly opposed to switching vehicles.
But Swalla’s other proposal was even more touchy.
She told the council to start metering residential water usage.
The continuously running water pump at the city’s wellheads uses more electricity than all the city street lights combined, she said. Because that electricity is generated at coal-fired plants, the pump is the city’s biggest cause of pollution. Swalla advocated water metering to cut demand.
“People don’t really have any incentive to conserve at all because we’re not metered,” said Swalla, who lives in the city and works for General Electric. “Ultimately I think it’s only a matter of time before we have to accept that we need to meter.”
Council members have regarded metering as political suicide and weren’t eager to take up the issue on Monday. But Mayor Brian U. Stratton appears to have already come up with a different solution.
Director of Operations Sharon Jordan told the council that Stratton wants to use wind to power the water pump.
“That’s just a brainstorm,” she said. “There are a lot of questions to answer. The mayor wants to ask Union College to study wind power and see if it could be used for the water pump.”
And it would be a lot easier than water metering.
“That would be a very hard program to implement,” Jordan said.
Councilman Mark Blanchfield put it more bluntly: “The trouble and enmity you would engender would probably cancel out any positive you might get.”
Council members were surprised to learn how much electricity was being used at the pump. But they were even more startled by the police cars’ poor gas mileage.
According to statistics gathered at the city’s fuel pumps, 200 of the city’s vehicles get less than 10 miles per gallon.
“Of course that includes firetrucks and garbage trucks,” Swalla said. “But those  are almost all Crown Victorias from the police department.”
Council members have discussed replacing some 25-mpg code enforcement cars with 40-mpg hybrids, but Swalla said they should focus on their least-efficient cars.
“A lot of people think, I have a Civic getting 30 mpg, I’ll get a hybrid and save a ton of gas,” she said. “You’re actually saving a lot more gas if you take your most gas-guzzling car.”
Buying a more fuel-efficient car would help, Swalla said. Replacing one Crown Victoria with a motorcycle during the months in which a motorcycle can be used would save $6,600 per year, she said.
Some garbage trucks could be improved too, she added. The city could save $1,200 a year by switching one Ford F350 pickup truck, which gets six mpg, with a Ford F150 pickup which gets 10 mpg. Those trucks are primarily driven by trash collection supervisors.
Council members said they hadn’t realized how inefficient the police cars were, but did not promise to make changes. Councilwoman Barbara Blanchard has repeatedly asked the police department about switching to more fuel-efficient cars, but police have defended the Crown Victorias as the best choice.
Still, Blanchfield said Swalla’s report will help drive the council’s decisions in the future. The report detailed how the city uses energy in every operation, highlighting wastefulness and ways in which the city could cut back.
“This is really excellent work,” he said, comparing it to national studies done for the federal government. “It’s going to get us ahead of the curve.”
The city has already cut its pollution by 4 percent in three years, according to the energy board’s research. The city installed new boilers and made other improvements that cut utility costs so much that the city saved money even after paying for the new machinery.
But the city has to cut back much more if it’s going to honor the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which Stratton signed during his first term in office.
The agreement calls for the city to reduce its pollution by 7 percent by 2012.
Swalla urged the city to focus on the water pump and the police cars. The Energy Advisory Board also plans to encourage residents to cut their own pollution. The city as a whole adds 377,000 tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere every year, Swalla said, and just 3 percent of that comes from municipal operations.
She said the city’s overall pollution could be reduced by 41,000 tons — 11 percent — if residents in 25,000 homes replaced 3 lightbulbs with CFLs; turned their thermostats from 70 degrees to 68 degrees in the winter; took shorter showers; and turned off electronic devices like cell phone charges when not in use.
Those changes would also create significantly lower utility bills.
“Clearly creating incentives and educating to encourage people to lower their emissions will go a long way — probably longer than what we can do with our buildings,” Swalla said.