Sponsored By
Sean Kilcarr

February 1, 2007

10 Min Read
FUEL for Thought

The way Chuck Woolever sees it, selecting the right alternative fuel for a refuse fleet boils down to a matter of balance. In almost every case, switching from diesel to an alternative fuel — such as natural gas, hydrogen, propane or blended fuels that use ethanol or biodiesel — involves extra costs for new equipment, refueling infrastructure, extra maintenance, etc.

The key to making that switch work, says Woolever, deputy director for San Diego's refuse collection division, is to find a way to balance out those costs, through means such as federal or state grant money, tax credits, pollution reduction points and lower fuel costs. At the same time, a refuse fleet must make sure that no matter what alternative fuel it selects, the fuel will provide enough power and range to meet operational needs.

“You really need to take a look at the entire picture,” he says. “When we started looking at using alternative fuels in our fleet, we looked at everything: Could we get government subsidies for clean air technology to help defray the cost? Which fuel would best let us maintain the duty cycle for our vehicles? Refueling infrastructure cost is another factor you must watch closely as you may or may not be able to get funding to help pay for it.”

San Diego initially began converting its refuse fleet more than a decade ago, with the purchase of 33 trucks that ran on a combination of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and diesel. Today, 77 out of the city's 200 refuse vehicles run on LNG. Though the LNG trucks cost more — $20,000 to $30,000 more per truck than a similar diesel model — San Diego receives federal and state grants to cover the difference.

However, Woolever stresses that, in the end, switching to an alternative fuel — even one that's partially blended with petroleum fuels, such as E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, or B20, which is 80 percent diesel fuel mixed with 20 percent soybean-based “biodiesel” — is not likely to help the bottom line, at least not now, so other motivations need to be present.

“You need to factor in the goodwill you'll get from the public, which is more and more sensitive to environmental and energy security issues today, as well as the benefit from getting ahead of pollution reduction mandates,” he says. “Being ahead of the game in emission compliance is a big benefit, especially since scrambling at the last minute to comply with pollution reduction rules can be extremely expensive.”

Getting Grants

For any refuse fleet thinking about a move to alternative fuels, the first and most crucial step is to look for funding to help offset the costs of converting, Woolever says.

“You need to find whatever subsidies you can get from government sources — federal, state and local — for alternative fuels, be they grants, tax credits, etc.,” he says. “Look for refueling infrastructure funding, too. That can be very expensive. When we went to dual fuel diesel-LNG refuse trucks, we found out that LNG refueling stations cost $500,000 a pop. That was significantly more than we expected, but we were able to get grants to cover a good bit of that expense.”

In 2002, Norcal Waste Systems received $2.2 million in funding from the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and additional grants from San Francisco's Department of the Environment to build an LNG refueling station and buy 14 LNG-powered waste transfer tractors. Another 15 LNG trucks have been ordered with the help of additional grants from regional transportation funds, according to Norcal.

Refuse companies don't have to directly receive grants to benefit, either. For example, Texas's New Technology Research and Development (NTRD) gave Cleveland, Ohio-based truck component maker Eaton Corp. a $700,000 grant last year so that the firm could equip 12 new refuse trucks with its hybrid regenerative braking system at no cost to the Texas firms buying the vehicles.

In Colorado, the Ethanol (E85) Coalition makes funds available to qualifying facilities to install alternative fuel pumps and infrastructure. The initiative provides partial funding not to exceed $15,000 to qualified applicants or a maximum of 75 percent of the after-tax-incentive project costs, whichever is less, said the Governor's Office of Energy Management and Conservation, which is spearheading the project. In addition to money, the coalition offers marketing and technical assistance to fund recipients.

The coalition awards on the following criteria: a facility's ability to obtain a long-term supply of ethanol at a set price; the number of alternative fuel vehicles using that location; whether the site offers more than one alternative fuel; and where the facility is located.

Despite the availability of funds, San Diego's Woolever cautions fleets that grants won't completely cover the costs of alternative fueled vehicles or refueling infrastructure. As a result, fleets must be very careful as they tally up their projected expenses.

“Take LNG. Natural gas requires cryogenic storage to keep it in a liquid state,” Woolever says. “It's neither easy nor cheap to build an insulated ‘thermos’ big enough to hold all the fuel you are going to need for your fleet. So there are trade-offs to consider here as the savings you might get from a lower-cost alternative fuel versus regular diesel may be offset by the refueling costs.”

Even fleets switching to blended fuels that use ethanol or biodiesel, which are easily compatible with standard off-the-shelf gasoline and diesel engines, need to weigh the cost trade-offs — and not just against straight diesel or gasoline, either. Though biodiesel costs more than regular diesel fuel — anywhere from 20 cents to 25 cents a gallon extra for Olympia, Wash.'s fleet — David Seavui, fleet maintenance supervisor for the city, says that pales in comparison to what would be required if the city wanted to switch to natural gas for all 40 of its diesel trucks, including 19 refuse packers.

“Not only would we have to retrofit the fueling systems on the vehicles, we would have had to build our own refueling station and make modifications to our maintenance facility in order to work on natural-gas powered equipment,” Seavui says. “For those reasons, switching to biodiesel gave us the lowest cost option to reduce vehicle emissions.”

And compensation to offset biodiesel's higher cost is there, too, says Ric Hiller, equipment chief for Arlington County, Va. “We partially eliminate the 25 cents extra we pay per gallon of biodiesel via a rebate offered by the federal government of $1 per gallon of pure biodiesel,” he says. “We get a percentage of that since our fuel is comprised of 20 percent biodiesel. It doesn't totally eliminate the extra cost we pay, but it sure helps soften the economic [impact].”

Operating Needs

The second big factor refuse fleets need to look it is how alternative fuels impact operations — not just in terms of miles per gallon, but also the extra weight alternative fuel components might add to the chassis as well as the potential for lower engine power.

“We took a hard look at our application needs. We had to make sure whatever alternative fuel we chose would still accomplish the duty cycle required of our vehicles,” says San Diego's Woolever. “We chose the dual-fuel LNG/diesel trucks that use diesel fuel to ‘pilot ignite’ the LNG. Even though these trucks run almost completely on LNG, the dual fuel configuration gave us an option to operate completely on diesel if we ran out of LNG on the road.”

Compensating for range limitations is another issue. In San Diego's case, each of its LNG trucks is equipped with 199 gallons of storage, as that roughly equals the mileage range of its 60-gallon diesel-only trucks. “It's got the equivalent power, but we needed to add extra fuel capacity to get the range,” Woolever says. “That's because you can't pull over and refuel an LNG truck as easily or as fast as you can a diesel truck.”

Increased vehicle weight can be an issue particularly with hybrid trucks, which use integrated electric motors to lower petroleum use. However, by activating the diesel engine only after the truck reaches a certain speed, a hybrid vehicle can produce significant savings in fuel consumption. Also, some hybrid systems produce less wear and tear on brakes by recovering the energy produced when slowing a truck down. These savings can offset the increased maintenance expenses of heavier vehicles.

Hitting the Road

Switching to an alternative fuel may be a good public relations move, but it is not something to be done without diligent planning. Waste firms should aggressively seek out grant money and other types of funding to ease the financial burden of such a move, and fleet operators should carefully consider the effects of a conversion on operations. By doing so, haulers can make sure that life after the switch to an alternative fuel is as smooth a road as possible.

Sean Kilcarr is senior editor for Fleet Owner, a sister publication of Waste Age.



It's officially called liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), but propane is the main ingredient. According to the National Propane Gas Association, the advantage of using LPG as a vehicle fuel is that it produces less carbon buildup in engines. The disadvantage is that it has to be stored under pressure, requiring special tanks and refueling equipment.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG)

Stored under high pressure, CNG has some of the same drawbacks as propane. It requires use of extra equipment on vehicles and at refueling sites, with fleet refueling stations costing anywhere from $250,000 to $3 million.

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG)

A natural gas that has been cooled down to a liquid state, more LNG can be stored onboard to increase mileage range. But since LNG must be stored at extremely cold temperatures (-260 degrees Fahrenheit), refrigeration systems must be added to vehicles.


The advantage to biodiesel — which is made from natural oils found in soybeans and other agricultural products, methanol and a sodium hydroxide catalyst — is that no vehicle conversions are required and it can be used in the same refueling network as gasoline and diesel fuel. Biodiesel is typically used as a blended product called B20 (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent diesel). However, B20 costs 15 percent to 20 percent more than diesel.


Also called ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol, ethanol is mixed with gasoline to form a blended fuel. E-85 (85 percent ethanol) and E-95 (95 percent ethanol) are made from agricultural products such as corn, barley and wheat and are mixed with gasoline. Using a fuel made up of mostly ethanol, however, lowers fuel economy 20 percent to 25 percent compared to pure gasoline — and the fuel hoses and seals on older trucks may wear out faster when exposed to high concentrations of ethanol.


Though it's an alcohol-based fuel, methanol is made from both agricultural products and natural gas. Methanol is also a fuel that is widely blended with gasoline. It's in limited production and not widely available.


The benefit of using electric vehicles (EVs) is that the refueling infrastructure is already in place, with a wide network of power plants and cables supplying electricity to homes and businesses across the country. The disadvantage is that the batteries needed to store electricity in the quantities necessary to power a vehicle at least 100 miles restrict the size and weight-hauling characteristics of EVs. These vehicles will most likely be used as commuter cars or in local delivery operations.
Sean Kilcarr

About the Author(s)

Sean Kilcarr

Senior Editor, Fleet Owner

Sean Kilcarr is the senior editor of Fleet Owner.

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