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CBS4 Investigates NREL Running Empty Shuttle Buses

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GOLDEN, Colo. (CBS4) – Colorado is home to the only federal agency whose sole mission is to develop renewable energy. But why is it running practically empty shuttle buses all day long?

Instead of saving energy, some have wondered if the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s 2,300 workers are wasting energy and money and polluting the environment with its shuttle buses.

NREL shuttle buses come in different sizes and go different places, but seem to have one thing in common — very few people on them.

“I was out here the other day for 15 minutes and within a 15 minute period … I clocked nine of them and they were almost all empty,” NREL neighbor Tina Kiel said.

Kiel works right next door, so CBS4 asked her to keep track of the buses and she did.

The following is a sample of Kiel’s finding over three days:

8:44 a.m. – empty
8:45 a.m. – empty
8:48 a.m. – two empties
8:50 a.m. – empty
8:51 a.m. – empty
8:54 a.m. – two riders
8:57 a.m. – one with a rider and another empty
8:58 a.m. – three riders

“It seems like a huge government waste of tax dollars to have empty buses running every couple minutes all day long every day,” Kiel said.

The buses connect the NREL campus with Regional Transportation District “park-n-Rides,” bus stops, other offices, and employee parking lots, which had both energy efficient cars and gas guzzlers.

“I don’t know whether all these empty buses are necessary, but I do know we have done a great deal of study of patterns of how our employees move throughout the day,” NREL spokesman George Douglas said.

It all adds up to an NREL transit system costing $1 million a year.

CBS4 investigator Rick Sallinger decided to stand out near NREL on several different days to see how many people were on board the buses. Most of the buses had very few passengers.

The picture was much the same even when Sallinger returned during the morning and afternoon rush hours. The most he saw on one of the big buses was 12 plus the driver. They hold 30.

Douglas agreed it’s not 100 percent efficient. But he pointed out if there’s three on a bus it eliminates three car trips.

Neighbors wonder about the gas.

“It is kind of strange that none of those are energy conserving vehicles,” a neighbor said.

NREL pointed out their shuttles do run on renewable energy. The buses run on biodiesel and most of the smaller shuttles run on E-85, even though that may involve lower gas mileage.

“It’s a domestically produced fuel, and it’s a fuel that puts less carbon into the atmosphere,” Douglas said.

At NREL they test the cars of the future while employees ride what may become the buses of the past.

For its part NREL insists it’s working to reduce its carbon footprint by giving employees RTD passes and picking them up at RTD stops. By the end of the year NREL will cut out half its shuttles once a new solar powered garage is completed.

The shuttles provide an estimated 600 rides each day.

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