Engineering design teams help Maryland counties curb emissions

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Over the two past years, two George Mason University systems engineering senior design teams developed a tool to help two Maryland counties make complex financial decisions to reduce their CO2 emissions.

During the 2019-20 academic year, one student team and their faculty advisor, Emeritus Professor George Donohue, completed an analysis to evaluate the benefits of Anne Arundel County (AAC) switching their county’s fleet of vehicles from gasoline-only to hybrid electric vehicles.

“County executives wanted to make an effort to reduce their carbon output, and looking at their fleet was a good way to accomplish that,” said Donohue. 

The four original team members—Emily Chen, Mukand Bihari, Norman Au, and O’Ryan Lattin—had to balance the county’s budget and infrastructure concerns to reach their goal. Eventually, they pivoted to look at hybrid vehicles, as opposed to a fully electric fleet.

The team’s pivot paid off. In late July 2020, Steuart Pittman, county executive for AAC, sent a memorandum to the county’s director of central services to detail the county’s plans to transition to all hybrid and electric vehicles by 2037.

“Matt Johnson, the county executive’s special staff person for the environment, came to me and said, ‘George, you will be happy to know that we have adopted your recommendation,’” said Donohue.

The following academic year, another senior design team was sponsored by Baltimore County to analyze their fleets and operations. To assist the county staff, the team developed a decision support tool to help county personnel see the total life-cycle costs of fuel-efficient vehicles and make the complex tradeoffs.

“The difference between acquisition costs and total life-cycle costs is very important,” said design team member and systems engineering major Khiem Duong. “Electric vehicles are more expensive to purchase but have lower operating costs than fossil fuel-burning vehicles. Internal combustion engine vehicles are less expensive to purchase but, over time, have higher operating costs.”

Duong, Evan Anderson, Rebecca Quintero, and Hein Naing’s tool has proven successful for Baltimore County. Using the tool, Baltimore County has identified departments and their fleets to transition to electric vehicles.

“The thorough assessment and detailed analytics provided in a user-friendly tool has helped the county tremendously,” said Seth Blumen, Baltimore County energy and sustainability coordinator. “We can now explore options for which vehicles to consider meeting sustainability goals. It was a privilege to work with such a sophisticated and dedicated team.”

“Addressing climate change is a massive challenge facing next generation,” said Mason College of Engineering and Computing professor Lance Sherry. “The previous generation of engineers designed systems that allowed CO2 into the atmosphere. The next generation of engineers will need to design systems to adapt to a changing climate and to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Our amazing systems engineering students are uniquely qualified to make the world a better place.”