Cities, counties and town have been leading the way in cleaning up the air with natural gas vehicles. What started in California has spread across the country.
Whether it’s the city council, the county board, or a forward thinking fleet administrator, communities are making the choice to switch all or parts of their fleet to natural gas. And the game changer has been the new discoveries of natural gas in the United States, so communities are now making the switch to a domestically produced fuel.
Why natural gas?
Culver City CNG Program
Most people know Culver City, CA, in western Los Angeles, as the home of movie studios and television shows, but the city is also staking a new claim to fame for its continuing leadership in switching its fleet to natural gas.
The city’s entire transit fleet and 80% of its refuse fleet run on compressed natural gas (CNG), and there are now almost 100 city vehicles running on CNG, including light-duty vehicles and heavy-duty public works trucks.
The city was such an early adapter to CNG technology that it is now replacing its eight-year-old CNG powered refuse trucks with new CNG vehicles. The trucks are built on an Autocar chassis and powered by Cummins ISL-G CNG engines rated at 320 horsepower.
In 2010 the city also took delivery of its first dedicated compressed natural gas paratransit buses that will replace three 10-year-old gasoline powered buses. The buses are built on Ford F-450 chassis and include a 6.8L dedicated CNG engine and four high-capacity CNG tanks with 28GGE (gasoline gallon equivalents). The ADA compliant buses can carry 15 passengers.
You could say the city was an early adapter because it began switching its fleet to natural gas in advance of California’s stringent state-mandated clean air rules. When Culver City was planning for the reconstruction of its Transportation Facility in 1996, city leaders made the decision to start replacing diesel and gasoline vehicles with CNG-powered vehicles whenever possible. And the new Transportation Facility was designed to accommodate maintenance on these gaseous powered vehicles.
After initially deploying 20 CNG buses in 1998, Culver City replaced of all its diesel buses by 2004, becoming the first 100% CNG transit fleet in the South Coast Air Quality Management District – and just the second in the state.
Even in an area with severe air quality issues, it helps to have a champion supporting the switch to CNG, and Paul Condran, equipment maintenance manager, has become Culver City’s champion.
Click here to see a video of Paul Condran talking about his program.
For example, early on the city took the initiative to work with manufacturers to develop new engine/chassis specifications for a CNG-powered asphalt truck, sewer truck and other vocational trucks, since none of these vehicles were available at the time. These applications have now been improved on and offered to other cities.
While air quality issues were the primary concern, Condran also cites energy security as one of the drivers for moving to CNG, since the U.S. has such an abundance of natural gas resources while the country continues to import the crude oil needed to make gasoline and diesel fuel.
Culver City owns and operates its own fueling station and has trained its personnel to operate and maintain the station. The station has three large compressors, each having the capacity of 286cfm. “It’s our opinion when fueling with compressed natural gas, faster is not always better,” says Condran.
The storage capacity of the station is 48,000 gasoline gallon equivalents (GGEs). The station has two fast-fill dispensers and 13 time-fill dispensers, which are used primarily for the transit bus fleet. While the fast-fill takes about 12 minutes, the time fill typically is done overnight.
The entire CNG fleet consumes close to 1 million gasoline gallon equivalents as year. The refuse vehicles operate approximately 250 hours per month on average while the transit buses drive an average of 1,800 miles monthly.
The city saves about $1.4 million on fuel costs alone because the cost of CNG is much lower than diesel or gasoline, even when the city adds in the costs of operating the station. Condran also see’s other savings as well. With substantial experience under his belt, Condran says engines that operate on CNG last much longer and save on maintenance because the oil is not polluted from fuel dilution, and we have extended drain intervals.
Condran’s fleet management philosophy has been to purchase new CNG powered vehicles rather than repowering vehicles to run on natural gas. Municipalities see the toughest challenge as paying the additional upfront cost of buying CNG vehicles, which varies based on the size of the vehicle.
Because the air quality issues are so severe in the Greater Los Angeles area, Culver City applies for and receives considerable grant funding from different sources to help reduce the upfront cost of NGVS. It obtained about $2.2 million from federal grants over five years and Condran said the city has been aggressive in pursuing all available grants and other government funding for vehicles and infrastructure to help make NGVs even more cost effective.
For Smithtown, N.Y., a suburban community on Long Island 50 miles from New York City, it was the cost of refuse collection that got the community hooked on natural gas as a transportation fuel.
In 2007 when the refuse contract came up, the town required the contract haulers to switch to natural gas powered refuse trucks – a first for any municipality in New York. Since the contract specified new vehicles, the town turned over the entire fleet of 22 trucks.
“This was a perfect opportunity to turn from dirty diesel to clean burning natural gas,” says Russell Barnett, Director of the Department of Environment and Waterways. “Contract refuse is tailor-made to making an overnight switch.”
With refuse trucks consuming anywhere from 2.4-2.8 miles per gasoline gallon equivalent, the big savings come in the cost differential between natural gas and diesel fuel. Over the life of the vehicle, these fuel savings more than offset the upfront cost of purchasing NGVs.
Barnett estimated in 2010 that the incremental fleet cost for the CNG refuse trucks was $7.38 per household, but the fuel savings was $10.72 per home per year, saving the community of more than 35,000 home $3.34 per household.
Since then, Smithtown has continued to add natural gas vehicles to its own fleet, including light-duty vehicles, six dump trucks, a street sweeper.
Barnett got hooked on natural gas after attending a conference in 2006, and he started doing his homework, talking with truck manufacturers and station operators. He negotiated with Clean Energy Fuels to build a fueling facility on the footprint of a much smaller location and four months later the station opened. When the refuse contract came up for renewal, he invited the truck manufacturers and others to speak to the potential bidders.
“The best thing communities that are looking to make the switch can do is to provide education to the local carting community prior to the bidding process,” says Barnett.
It worked. Barnett says the town attracted more bidders than it ever had, and the town signed seven-year contracts with four refuse companies. Price stability was the big factor.
The town purchases 15,000 gasoline gallon equivalents per month or 180,000 gasoline gallon equivalents for the entire fleet under a contract with Clean Energy, which now operates two stations that fuel the fleet. The fueling contract is based on the cost of the fuel, a compression fee, plus taxes. The compression fee includes capital expenses, interest on the principal, maintenance costs and a margin, and the fluctuating variable has been the cost of natural gas on the futures market.
“You can have price stabilization with natural gas to a much greater degree than you can with diesel fuel,” says Barnett. “That’s something that is extremely important to a municipality and the importance might not be easily understood.”
And that was one lesson the bidders learned. “The bidders felt that diesel was becoming unreliable in price structure and the contract with fixed fuel prices made it extremely attractive business,” says Barnett.
Nearby communities followed Smithtown’s lead.
“Now Long Island had roughly three-quarters of a million people being served exclusively with natural gas by 14 different refuse companies,” says Barnett.
And who benefits the most?
Probably the drivers, where the decibel level is much lower inside the cab of the truck, and the employees riding the back of the truck, who are no longer breathing in diesel emissions all day long.