DAVID MCKENNA will tell you there's no question about the future of alternative fuels in the heavy truck market — despite the impending introduction of cleaner diesel products, ones that he himself has been working hard to produce for more than a decade.

McKenna, product marketing manager for engines, transmissions and axles for Mack Trucks., Allentown, Pa., notes that despite his company's introduction of a new line of diesel engines designed to meet the stringent 2007 exhaust emission regulations, the firm not only still plans to keeping building its dedicated natural gas fired engine block, but expects to see more demand for it in the near future.

“The future of alternative fuels is not diminished due to clean diesel,” McKenna says. “When states like California deem diesel exhaust to be a carcinogen [a cancer-causing material], then you almost have to go to an alternative fuel platform to alleviate their concerns.”

Public Appetite

Indeed, the confidence that McKenna and others have in the future demand for alternative fuel vehicles rests in large part on the increased interest of public agencies in the equipment.

Last year, a decision by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles reinstated a portion of Southern California's air pollution control agency's controversial “clean fleet” rules. Originally, the rules mandated that public and private operators of fleets with 15 or more trash collection vehicles, street sweepers or other vehicles buy or lease the cleanest available vehicles — which often means those powered by alternative fuels — when adding or replacing equipment.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) — the air pollution control agency for Orange County and major portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties — first adopted the rules in August 2000 and was promptly sued by the Chicago-based Engine Manufacturers Association and the Sacramento, Calif.-based Western States Petroleum Association. The two organizations claimed the federal Clean Air Act pre-empts the rules because they set emission standards for new vehicles and engines. SCAQMD argued that its fleet rules do not set emission standards for new vehicles or engines, but rather place purchase requirements on fleet operators.

In 2001, Cooper ruled in favor of SCAQMD. However, three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the fleet regulations do not necessarily escape pre-emption by the Clean Air Act just because they address the purchase of vehicles and sent the case back to Cooper for final resolution.

In May 2005, Cooper ruled that the fleet rules, at least as applied to state and local governments, are valid procurement requirements. A couple of months later, SCAQMD announced it would also apply the rules to private firms that contract to state and local governments. SCAQMD's Governing Board adopted its fleet rules following a study that showed about 70 percent of the total cancer risk from air pollution was due to diesel exhaust.

The public sector's determination to address the health risks posed by diesel fuel has not been confined to Southern California. At the first meeting of the World Mayors Council on Climate Change last year, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, pledged that his city would meet or exceed the controversial Kyoto Protocol limitations on the emissions of “greenhouse gases,” which include diesel exhaust. To date, the mayors of nearly 200 U.S. cities — including those of San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; and Minneapolis — have signed Nickel's challenge.

Seattle's government has already slashed its emissions by about 60 percent since 2000 and is looking to cuts in diesel exhaust to further its emission reductions. To that end, the two firms that handle the city's solid waste operations — Houston-based Waste Management (WM) and Seattle-based Rabanco — are upgrading the approximately 200 trucks they use to serve the city. The trucks are being retrofitted with oxidation catalysts to reduce toxic tailpipe emissions. Also, half of the trucks will begin using B20 — a fuel consisting of 80 percent ultra-low sulfur diesel and 20 percent biodiesel.

“Exhaust from diesel trucks and other equipment is the leading source of toxic air pollution in our region, accounting for nearly 80 percent of cancer-causing emissions to our outside air,” said Dennis McLerran, executive director for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which includes Seattle, in a statement announcing the upgrades.

“These changes will cut up to 90 percent of the exhaust pipe pollution and make a difference in keeping our air clean,” said Nickels in another statement.

The clamor for an increased role for alternative fuels is not confined to the public sector. For example, business and public officials in California have joined to form the California Secure Transportation Energy Partnership (CalSTEP). George Schultz, who served as secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, heads the organization.

The partnership seeks to reduce the consumption of petroleum-based fuels to secure a more stable energy future. The organization says it is founded on the concept that by California becoming a model state for energy consumption by 2020, it can foster more national efforts to reduce petroleum usage.

CalSTEP's long-term goal is to reduce on-road petroleum fuel consumption by at least 15 percent below 2003 levels by 2020, while increasing the use of alternative transportation fuels in the state to at least 20 percent of total on-road fuel demand. The organization also has produced an “Action Plan” that outlines several ways that states can reduce the use of petroleum: diversify their fuel supply, increase vehicle efficiency, apply smart-growth development, implement advanced transit systems and educate the public on fuel issues.

The organization believes there is a need to increase reliance on alternative fuels in part because of the security concerns that arise out of relying so heavily on imported oil. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the United States imports 64 percent of its oil, much of it from the Middle East. Furthermore, the partnership points to a survey of the transportation industry conducted by CALSTART, the California operating division of WestStart-CALSTART, a North American advanced transportation technologies consortium. Seventy-nine percent of the respondents believe that U.S. businesses will be hard hit by oil supply challenges by 2020.

Making Do

With a push toward alternative fuels apparently developing, several efforts are underway to help the waste industry incorporate alternative fuel vehicles into their operations.

For instance, a group of companies including Mack and WM are working on a project that is fostering technology to harvest landfill gas and convert it into useable truck fuel. “Basically, your landfill becomes your own little Saudi Arabia,” McKenna says. “And when diesel fuel is costing $2.40 to $2.80 a gallon, it suddenly becomes much more economical on a long-term basis to be able to make your own fuel.”

Also, the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) — as part of DOE'S Next Generation Natural Gas Vehicle Program — has been working to develop a low-emissions, heavy-duty natural gas engine that exceeds the stringent Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) 2010 emissions standards.

SwRI is focused on cutting oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) using only a “seasoned” catalyst — one that has been operated briefly before testing to achieve a stable emissions reduction. Its initial test results, released in July 2005, showed NOx emissions at 0.049 gram per brake horsepower hour (g/bhp-hr), less than one-quarter of the 2010 standard, and PM at 0.002 g/bhp-hr, one-fifth of the future standard.

Vancouver, Canada-based Cummins Westport, in partnership with DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, also is working to commercialize a natural gas engine for medium-duty truck, refuse and urban transit markets that meets the EPA's 2010 standards by 2007.

Cummins Westport wants to develop the engine so that it meets the 2010 targets without the need for expensive aftertreatment systems, yet also improves thermal efficiency and power density when compared with current natural gas engines.

“The availability of a high performance engine with ultra-low emissions bodes well in the fight against deteriorating urban air quality and climate change,” says Guan Saw, president of Cummins Westport.

The waste industry traditionally has been reluctant to embrace alternative fuel vehicles because of their high costs when compared with diesel vehicles. However, with calls for increased use of alternative fuels by the public sector, and, in some cases, the private sector, their role in the nation's transportation system seems poised to grow. And with efforts underway to develop cheaper alternative fuel sources and engines, the future of the fuels appears bright indeed.

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


The following terms pertain to alternative fuels:

Alternative fuels — A fuel determined by the U.S. Department of Energy to be “substantially not petroleum” and yielding “substantial energy security benefits and substantial environmental benefits.” Includes methanol, denatured ethanol and other alcohols, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, hydrogen, electricity and fuels derived from “biological materials.”

Biodiesel — A biodegradable transportation fuel for use in diesel engines that is produced through transesterification of organically derived oils or fats.

Clean Air Act — The original Clean Air Act was signed in 1963 and has been amended several times, most recently in 1990. The law sets emission standards for stationary sources and motor vehicles. Regulated pollutants include lead, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).

EPA's Heavy-Duty Truck Emission Standards — In 2007, PM emission levels decrease to 0.01 grams per brake horsepower hour (g/bhp-hr), NOx to 0.2 g/bhp-hr and non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC) to 0.14 g/bhp-hr. The PM requirement will be implemented fully in 2007, while the NOx and NMHC requirement will be phased in between 2007 and 2010. New diesel engines in 2010 will produce less than 10 percent of the emissions of 2001 models.

Ozone — Tropospheric ozone (smog) is formed when volatile organic compounds, oxygen and NOx react in sunlight. Though beneficial in the upper atmosphere, at ground level ozone is a respiratory irritant and is considered a pollutant.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy