How waste management companies power their fleets affects everything from fuel efficiency and cost to emissions and maintenance needs. While diesel-powered trucks have long dominated the road, today’s haulers are increasingly turning to alternative technologies.
At WasteExpo 2019, a panel of industry experts discussed the viability of alternative fuels in fleet applications in a May 8 session titled, Alternative Fuels: What Works for My Operation?
Where we are today
Although diesel trucks have been the de facto vehicle of choice for haulers, newer technologies have begun to change the collection vehicle landscape across the country.
Scott Barraclough, technology project manager at Greensboro, North Carolina-based Mack Trucks, said while compressed natural gas (CNG) was virtually nonexistent in hauler applications 10 or 15 years ago, it now makes up a significant portion of new equipment purchases.
Barraclough noted that while diesel is still king (making up roughly 60 percent of sales for Mack’s collection trucks), CNG has closed the gap, currently comprising roughly 40 percent of the vehicles the company sells. In deciding which option is best, he says that individual companies need to weigh a number of variables to find a solution that is right for them.
“Diesel is still the baseline that alternative fuels [need to be weighed against],” he said. “You have to make a business case financially for this to make sense. Diesel has been used for approximately 100 years now, so that’s what alternative fuels have to compete against. The good things with diesel trucks are they have the lowest acquisition costs, high energy density per gallon, fuel distribution is well established—you can fill up at basically any street corner across the country, you have 100 years of experience with servicing these vehicles so having your vehicle serviced is never really an issue, and these trucks can be used anywhere geographically because there aren’t really any limitations on fuel sources.”
Barraclough said the negatives compared with alternative fuel vehicles are that diesel vehicles have higher CO2 emissions, noisier operation, they’re not perceived as green as other vehicles, and they have complex after-treatment requirements for servicing the diesel engine.
CNG, conversely, has a lower fuel cost compared with diesel, especially at scale; is more immune to price fluctuations; is domestically sourced; enjoys a growing support infrastructure throughout the country; it is greener than diesel; comes with simple after-treatment requirements; can be derived from renewable sources such as landfill; and often comes with financial incentives available both on the fuel and the vehicle itself.
The negatives with CNG vehicles are that the vehicle, its components, and its fuel system are initially more expensive; they are heavier; they don’t offer the same power density as diesel; there are storage limitations on the vehicle for carrying CNG; and they require companies to find, or construct their own, fueling stations.
Harland Chadbourne, director of purchasing for Central Florida-based Waste Pro USA, said the benefits of natural gas were what attracted the company to make a large investment in CNG vehicles in recent years. He notes that the company began switching to natural gas vehicles in 2012, and that it currently has 462 CNG vehicles in operation and eight dedicated fueling stations.
Factoring in the incentives and operational considerations, he said the company is soon poised to pay off its investment in its stations, which will lower the company’s operational costs even further in the near future.
“One thing we’ve found is that we’ve been [using CNG vehicles for so long], that our stations are going to be paid off under a 10-year depreciation cycle,” he said. “When they get paid off, the cost per gallon drops. You have to pay for additional upgrades to keep things up, but the numbers get a lot more attractive.”
Beyond diesel and CNG, electric waste vehicles are beginning to come online and be used in real-world applications. Companies like Los Angeles-based BYD have already deployed electric hauler trucks that are currently in use, and Mack Trucks announced at WasteExpo that the New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) will be testing its new electric hauler truck next year.
Although in their infancy, Barraclough said he thinks that electric vehicles will quickly gain favor in waste applications.
“Electric vehicles are going to be the future. We think [this technology] is really going to get its legs in the next five years,” Barraclough said.
He says that beyond zero emissions, these vehicles offer quiet operation, reduced maintenance costs, require inexpensive electricity (depending on the region), and can be backed by significant governmental incentives (also dependent on the region). The negatives with electric vehicles are that they are often significantly more expensive to purchase, are heavier, have a limited fuel range and charging infrastructure throughout the U.S., require technicians to be retrained to service a new kind of vehicle, and run the risk of unknown issues due to it being a newer technology.
John Gerra, director of business development for BYD America, said that while municipalities are just beginning to consider electric waste vehicles for collections, there is a tremendous opportunity for growth.
“What I would say to fleet operators thinking of investing in electric vehicles, would be to start with the states that have the best incentives and identify the top-priority states for this to leverage the money while it’s available,” he said. “Then you can get these new trucks into service and get everybody comfortable with the technology and get the maintenance teams up to speed on what’s required so that when emissions regulations tighten, your fleet is ready to roll out electric trucks on a larger scale. One thing is for sure—emissions regulations aren’t going to get more lenient. And with electric trucks, the need to worry about emissions goes away.”