Easing the transition

While the future might be in hydrogen fuel cells or electric vehicles, some believe natural gas offers a low-emissions fuel option for those transitioning from diesel to zero-emission vehicles.

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Waste management is one of the most important services to communities throughout the world—helping to keep neighborhoods clean and vibrant.

The rising cost of diesel fuel and increasing public pressure on fleet managers to adopt alternative forms of power make waste management a prime industry to benefit from a clean-power solution that is readily available today: natural gas (NG). 

Alternative fuels like NG, which include compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), have grown in popularity because of their broad appeal. It is for this reason that they have become a key part of emission reduction initiatives, such as Cummins’ Destination Zero strategy.

With climate change quickly becoming the existential crisis of the current generations, the Indiana-based engine manufacturer says it wants to be part of the solution by addressing the problem head-on with Destination Zero to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the air quality impacts of its products to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

“Customers need a solution that allows them to reduce emissions while still being economically viable,” says Fernando Zavala, segment leader of Vocational Vehicles for Cummins Inc. “The fact that the refuse industry currently has the highest adoption rate of natural gas engines tells us they are a terrific solution to lower carbon.”

Contemplating the switch 

When considering integrating NG engines in refuse vehicles, many questions surface about the cost and feasibility of the transition. Of course, preparations must be considered and some upfront costs are greater than those associated with diesel equivalents, but the learning curve to implement NG is not as steep as people might think.

Many downstream cost benefits can be realized that offset the initial upfront expense. With benefits like reliability, fuel efficiency and the reduction of GHG emissions in the environment, the switch can be worth exploring.

Hundreds of thousands of vehicles with NG engines are operating all over the world. In addition to environmental benefits, such as extremely low emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds or carbon monoxide, they also are durable, dependable and are a powerful choice for waste fleets.

For certain applications like refuse trucks, as well as other industries where vehicles return to base at the end of the day, NG engines can be an ideal solution. If the infrastructure is on-site, the cost is low, which means businesses can avoid high fuel costs while also meeting environmental goals. Although NG is a fossil fuel, it can be a bridge to zero-emission platforms, such as battery electric and fuel cell-powered vehicles.

Not only is NG more abundant and efficient than diesel, it also costs less than gasoline and diesel fuel.

In some areas of the country, its retail price is less than half the price of diesel, and, in North America, average retail prices for NG have remained relatively stable for the past 20 years. In addition, NG vehicles do not require extensive exhaust after-treatment systems, experience fewer breakdowns and incur lower maintenance costs over time.

NG also can improve the fueling experience for many fleet drivers. In a world of numerous alternative fuel options, ranging from CNG to LPG, NG can be used in a vehicle in either compressed or liquefied form. For fleets with behind-the-fence refueling capability, NG refueling stations can be set up on-site to ensure that each vehicle has a dedicated fuel hose.

Fast-fill systems combine a compressor and a high-pressure storage system that fills the fuel tank in roughly the same time it takes to fill a diesel vehicle. Time-fill systems typically compress the gas directly into the vehicle storage cylinders to refuel vehicles while they are parked overnight, so drivers don’t need to wait their turn at a pump, saving time and company money.

Noticeably quieter than diesel engines, NG engines are an attractive option for waste haulers because collection trucks travel through communities at all hours of the day and night.

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Aiming for the same target

Renewable natural gas (RNG), a fuel product similar to NG, is made using organic waste such as animal manure, sewage sludge or landfill gasses. Once suitably refined, RNG can be used interchangeably with NG.

Some waste management companies have processes in place to capture the methane generated by organic decomposition in a landfill so it can be put to use fueling their fleets. 

Another benefit is that NG and RNG can’t spill since they are lighter than air and can’t puddle or lead to ground contamination like denser fuels can.

Federal and local regulators are targeting the year 2027 for lower emission standards for heavy-duty trucks.

Understanding the benefits of NG-powered refuse trucks, some states are offering grants and other funding opportunities to encourage more fleets to make the switch to NG, while others offer incentives to encourage the development of NG fueling facilities. 

Today, in addition to NG, truck OEMs and fleets face several power technology choices, including diesel, hydrogen internal combustion engines, hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles (EVs). While NG is near-zero emissions, hydrogen fuel cell and battery-powered EVs offer zero tailpipe emissions.

The decision of which power technology is best suited for a fleet is largely based upon a company’s preference, with some fleets fully committed to NG, while others are looking to make the jump from diesel to zero-carbon emission options.

This article was submitted by Cummins Inc., an engine manufacturer based in Columbus, Indiana.

October 2022
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