Don't it make your GREEN trucks BLUE?

THE WAY BRIAN BEAUDRIE sees it, the U.S. Supreme Court pretty much removed one of the major reasons why waste giant Republic Services of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., pushed to invest in alternatively powered refuse vehicles.

In late April, the court eliminated an incentive to purchase alternatively fueled vehicles when it ruled that Southern California's clean air agency cannot prohibit fleets from leasing or purchasing vehicles equipped with diesel engines that meet federal and state regulations. The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) initially required public and commercial fleets to purchase only certain approved vehicles that would help bring the region into compliance with federal clean air standards. However, the court said the agency's rules overstepped congressional and state standards, and eliminated the regulations.

Without the mandate, there's almost no reason to buy alternatively fueled vehicles, says Beaudrie, fleet manager for Republic's Western region. Refuse trucks powered by something other than diesel fuel — in his case liquefied natural gas (LNG) — are prohibitively expensive to buy and operate. “First, the initial cost for us is much higher — on the order of $35,000 to buy a refuse truck equipped to run on LNG versus a current diesel-powered model. They also are more expensive to run. They consume on average 2.6 times more LNG than diesel comparatively to cover the same amount of mileage,” he says.

For these reasons, alternatively fueled vehicles make up just a small portion of Republic's overall fleet of 5,500 trucks located at 146 subsidiaries throughout the nation. The company has 94 total — 69 of which are pure LNG-powered and 25 dual-fuel (diesel and LNG-powered) models — and all are in California, where regulatory pressure to adopt alternatively fueled equipment is highest.

Despite the drawbacks, a few economic advantages remain for alternative fuels in the refuse market, Beaudrie stresses. For starters, Republic bought 37 LNG-powered collection trucks for its Solano Garbage facility in Fairfield, Calif., solely to win the city of San Francisco's garbage hauling contract two years ago, he says. The contract required bidders to provide only non-diesel powered equipment.

“We won that contract solely because we had a green fleet,” Beaudrie says. “It was a requirement to bid on that contract, so we bought them.”

Then, there's the “holy grail,” as many view it for the waste industry. Solid waste managers can produce their own supply of vehicle fuel by refining landfill gas (LFG). The process is being tested heavily by Waste Management Inc., Houston, at one of its Pennsylvania facilities.

“If we can refine the methane gas that's a byproduct of garbage decomposition in our landfills, that changes everything,” Beaudrie says. “That would give us the capacity to make our own fuel, potentially saving us a lot money and making the switch to LNG far more cost-effective. It would give us a definitive advantage to running our trucks on LNG.”

Until then, however, and in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, the only advantage Beaudrie sees to using alternative fuels in refuse fleets right now is to be a good corporate citizen. “It certainly reduces air emissions and gives some recognition as a ‘green fleet,’ but as it stands right now, it is far more costly to operate refuse trucks on any fuel other than diesel,” he says.

California Rule 1193

The debate concerning the future of alternative fuels in the refuse market has largely coalesced around a single topic: SCAQMD's Rule 1193, which was developed to reduce air pollution generated by “mobile sources” such as trucks and other vehicles.

SCAQMD is a state agency mandated by the federal Clean Air Act to bring the 11,000 square-mile South Coast Air Basin region of Southern California — consisting of 16 million people living in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties — into compliance with National Ambient Air Quality Standards by 2010. The air quality in the South Coast Air Basin is so bad that it is the only area in the country designated as “extreme” in terms of air quality.

Although the SCAQMD directly regulates “stationary” pollution generation sources, such as power plants and refineries, its research shows that almost 80 percent of smog-forming emissions come from cars and trucks — some 10 million gasoline and a quarter million diesel-powered vehicles.

Between June and October 2000, SCAQMD adopted six “fleet rules” to get more nonpetroleum field vehicles on the road. The rules covered: operators of street sweepers (Rule 1186.1); passenger cars, light-duty trucks and medium-duty vehicles (Rule 1191); public transit vehicles and urban buses (Rule 1192); solid waste collection vehicles (Rule 1193); airport passenger transportation vehicles, including shuttles and taxicabs picking up airline passengers (Rule 1194); and heavy-duty on-road vehicles (Rule 1196). All six rules applied to public operators, with three focused on largely private firms.

A lawsuit filed by the Engine Manufacturers Association (EMA) against SCAQMD in August 2000 sought to overturn those rules on the grounds that the agency overstepped its authority by trying to mandate specific vehicle purchases. While that lawsuit wound its way through the courts, refuse operators and other fleets began purchasing alternatively fueled trucks.

“The market for natural gas refuse trucks has been very soft while a challenge to this rule was being considered,” says Kevin Campbell, general manager of vehicle systems for San Diego-based Clean Air Power, which manufacturers a dual fuel system that allows heavy-duty diesel engines to operate on both LNG and diesel fuel. “The rule has required [refuse] operators in the Los Angeles basin to purchase alternate fuel trucks when adding or replacing units in their fleet,” he says. “We don't believe the U.S. market for alternatively fueled vehicles will grow much without rules such as the one noted above. While countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Argentina will see growth due to the economic benefits of natural gas versus diesel fuel, U.S. fuel economics do not support significant growth without regulatory pressure.”

Getting Cleaner

Another challenge facing alternative fuels is that diesel equipment is, by law, getting cleaner. By 2010, heavy-duty diesel engines are supposed to be as clean as their natural gas counterparts. So the emission-reduction benefits of using alternative fuels as opposed to diesel could be negated.

However, final technological solutions necessary to eliminate the pollution generated by diesel engines still remain on the drawing board — and they will substantially add to the cost of diesel. So diesel will be on a more level playing field with alternative fuel technology. “Currently, diesel has a cost advantage as compared to natural gas-powered engines,” says Jeff Campbell, director of product marketing for Cummins Westport, a joint venture between Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada-based Westport Innovations and Cummins Engine of Columbus, Ohio, that builds heavy-duty, natural gas-powered truck engines. “But with the mandated changes in technology for diesel starting in 2007 and going through 2010, as well as higher diesel fuel costs, that advantage is going to largely go away,” he says.

To reach the 2007-2010 emission levels mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., particulate matter (PM) emissions levels must fall to 0.01 grams per brake horsepower hour (g/bhp-hr); oxides of nitrogen (NOx) must drop to 0.2 g/bhp-hr; and nonmethane hydrocarbon (NMHC) levels must be cut to 0.14 g/bhp-hr. In achieving these goals, truck makers estimate a minimum of $10,000 would be added to the price of a diesel engine, on top of the extra $2,500 to $5,000 necessary to meet 2002's emission rule changes.

With the PM requirement to go into full effect in 2007, and the NOx and NMHC requirements phased-in between 2007 and 2010, changes in diesel fuel will be necessary. Starting June 1, 2006, the sulfur content of diesel fuel will drop from 350 parts per million (ppm) to 15 ppm, adding 5 cents per gallon to 25 cents per gallon to diesel's price.

The higher costs could, in turn, boost the attractiveness of alternative fuels such as natural gas, says Richard Kolodziej, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition (NGVC).

“Natural gas engines already meet current 2002 and 2004 emission standards and can meet the 2007 rules as well,” Kolodziej says. “The technology needed for diesel engines to meet the '07 rules, however, still has to be tested in the field. Also, these new technologies aren't as robust as the diesel engine itself — we're talking about particulate traps, oxidation catalysts and exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) systems whose life cycle is unknown. That's been one of the great advantages of diesels in the past — they were so robust, you couldn't kill them. Now, with this new technology, the life cycle is more unsure.”

The cleaner diesel engines of 2007 and beyond also will get lower fuel economy and require more maintenance because of the addition of extra technology necessary to reduce pollution. Operating costs will increase significantly, he says.

Despite those obstacles, truck manufacturers believe cleaner diesel engine technology will trump usage of alternative fuels in the end because refueling diesel trucks is easier to achieve.

“Diesel fuel is just so much more readily available,” says Dan Farmer, assistant chief engineer of product development for Kirkland, Wash.-based Kenworth Truck Co. “You need that refueling infrastructure because it affects your ability to operate the vehicle.”

With only 1,600 public natural gas refilling stations nationwide, according to the NGVC, compared to more than 100,000 locations for diesel fuel, most fleets looking to use alternative fuels must invest in their own refueling facility. But $500,000 for each compressed natural gas (CNG) or LNG filling station represents a huge investment. Even truck makers that have invested heavily in alternatively fueled products for the waste industry plan to shift their focus back to diesel as 2007 approaches.

“We have 400 natural gas trucks in use today, all in the refuse market,” says Steve Ginter, director of product development for Allentown, Pa.-based Mack Trucks. “We still have research projects going on for improving natural gas engines, but our focus is going to switch to the advantage of low-emission diesel technology, which will be twice as clean as our current natural gas engine.”

Biodiesel Option

Biodiesel is a fuel that, despite the word “diesel” in its name, is made completely from renewable biological sources such as vegetable oils or animal fats. It is one alternative fuel option that's been garnering more attention lately. Although biodiesel doesn't reduce NOx emissions without using special fuel additives, it cuts PM emission levels and acts as a lubricating agent for diesel engine components — a capability that will be sorely needed when the sulfur content of diesel fuel gets cut to 15 ppm in mid-2006.

“Just adding 1 percent to 2 percent worth of biodiesel to your diesel fuel mix boosts lubricity by as much as 65 percent,” says Jenna Higgins, spokeswoman for the National Biodiesel Board, Jefferson City, Mo. “We believe that even as fleets move to cleaner diesel engine technology, there still will be a big role for biodiesel to play.”

“When you hear the word ‘biodiesel,’ it's important to remember that most users like it in blends with regular petroleum-based diesel fuel,” says David Seavui, fleet maintenance supervisor for the city of Olympia, Wash. Olympia started using a B20 biodiesel blend (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent regular diesel) for all 40 of its diesel trucks, including 19 refuse packers, in December 2003.

“Air quality is the big issue we face, so as a government agency, we're doing our part to cut air pollution,” Seavui says. “For us, biodiesel offered the easiest and cheapest way to do that. We just put the fuel in the tanks of our current trucks and go — no modifications necessary.”

The switch has been such a non-issue that the city is considering moving to a B40 fuel blend — 40 percent biodiesel, 60 percent regular diesel. “We've had no performance issues at all with the fuel. Our drivers experience no difference in vehicle power and report their trucks smell better and the exhaust stacks are cleaner by using the B20 blend,” Seavui adds.

Although biodiesel costs more than regular diesel — anywhere from 20 cents to 25 cents a gallon extra for Olympia's fleet — the numbers pale in comparison to what would be required if the city wanted to switch to natural gas, Seavui says.

“Not only would we have to retrofit the fueling systems on the vehicles, we would have to build our own refueling station and make modifications to our maintenance facility 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.”

To date, the city of Olympia has reduced vehicle emissions by 16 percent since making the switch to biodiesel last year. This is equivalent to annually eliminating 20 tons of greenhouse gases produced by the city's fleet.

Steve Hennessey, fleet manager for the 85 refuse trucks operated by the city of Tacoma, Wash., echoes Seavui's comments, noting that Tacoma switched its entire refuse fleet to biodiesel in November 2002.

“We use about 1 million gallons of B20 a year now, and we've noticed no difference performance-wise with this fuel in our trucks,” he says. “We also helped to minimize the high cost of biodiesel (20 cents a gallon extra) by going to a mobile delivery and refueling contract. That saved an hour or so out of the refuse truck drivers' day that they would have spent refueling their trucks. So using biodiesel and mobile refueling has boosted fleet productivity for us, defraying the additional cost,” he says.

Fuel from Landfills

What will keep alternative fuels on the refuse industry's radar for some time to come, however, is the potential to refine LFG, a methane-based waste byproduct of garbage decomposition, and use it to fuel trucks.

“The one big area where alternative fuel technology offers a significant contribution where refuse operators are concerned is reducing methane waste gas from landfills,” says Dennis Smith, technical director for the Clean Cities Coalition, a group within the U.S. Department of Energy aimed at helping public and private fleets increase their use of alternative fuels. “Refuse companies are under a lot of pressure from the EPA to find ways to reduce landfill gas because it's a greenhouse gas. It's adding to the air pollution and global warming problem,” he says. “So what better way to solve that problem than to refine it and use it to fuel their trucks?”

According to the Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP), a voluntary program operated by the EPA, LFG is about 50 percent methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. However, methane also is a reliable and renewable fuel source that, if not collected, goes to waste.

The EPA has sponsored several projects to see if LFG can be converted to a vehicle fuel, with some success. Waste Management now is involved in a landfill-gas-to-vehicle-fuel project at one of its sites in Pennsylvania.

Since 1994, gas produced by the Puente Hills Landfill in Whittier, Calif., has been collected, refined and compressed at a facility to produce enough fuel per day to run an 11-vehicle fleet ranging from passenger vans to large on-road tractors. “People love the concept of today's trash trucks being fueled by yesterday's trash,” says John Cosulich, manager of the program.

Landfill gas has been collected at this site since the 1980s, but primarily to fuel a stationary, electricity production facility. To produce vehicle-grade fuel, however, wells situated deep within the landfill channel the gas into the cleaning facility, where it is purified through semi-permeable membranes that remove carbon dioxide and water vapor.

“The project has reduced emissions of greenhouse gases and helped to decrease our dependence on foreign oil,” Cosulich explains. Powering landfill equipment and refuse trucks with refined LFG has the added benefit of proximity, he notes, because the fuel does not have to be hauled in from offsite, and visiting trucks can re-fuel as part of their stop at the landfill.

“There is a lot of potential here to dramatically improve the economics for refuse companies to switch to alternative fuel. Especially in this case, LFG is a fuel source we already have,” says Clean Cities' Smith. “While these issues do not mean alternative fuels will completely replace diesel, there is a more economical niche for it,” he says.

Sean Kilcarr is Senior Editor for Waste Age's sister publication, Fleet Owner magazine.


Two new advantages to using alternative fuels today in the refuse market come from completely different angles: a growing number of waste contracts that require only alternatively fueled equipment and increased resources to help defray the cost of making the switch to a non-petroleum fuel.

“Two waste fleets in particular — Norcal Waste Systems, San Francisco, and Waste Management Inc., Houston — are trying to use their alternatively fueled vehicles as marketing tools, using their lower-emission, non-diesel equipment to bid on government contracts in cities with air quality issues,” says Richard Kolodziej, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition (NGVC). “Many cities and localities in ‘non-attainment’ areas, places where air pollution levels are so high that they must reduce vehicle emissions or risk losing highway funds, are looking at fleets that not only can provide services but can help reduce pollution levels at the same time,” he says.

Also, more resources are being brought to bear to help private fleets in particular make the switch to alternative fuels. “One reason so many transit fleets are increasing their use of natural gas is that 90 percent of the capital costs are being covered by the federal government,” Kolodziej says. “Now we're seeing more resources and public-private partnerships moving into the private fleet arena, especially for waste haulers.”

Norcal received $2.2 million from the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) in 2002, along with grants from the city's Department of the Environment, to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) refueling station and buy 14 LNG-powered waste transfer tractors. Some 15 more LNG trucks are on order with the help of regional transportation funds, Norcal says.

“This type of financial support helps make the switch to alternative fuels less taxing for a private sector fleet,” Kolodzeij says.

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