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Alternative fuel vehicles that lead to a different kind of green

The upfront investment can be high, but experts estimate that the cost of converting a commercial fleet of trucks to alternative fuel can be recouped in a couple of years


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JOHN VINCENT - A puff of propane is released as Park, Shuttle 'n Fly driver David Martin finishes refueling a propane Autogas-powered shuttle bus at the102nd and Prescott  Blue Star Gas facility. The small amount of propane released dissipates quickly into the air.President Barack Obama has ordered new standards set on the efficiency and environmental impact of commercial vehicles on the American road.

Just one segment of the commercial market — long-haul trucks — represents just 4 percent of the vehicles on the road, but consumes 20 percent of the petroleum used in transportation. Vehicle for vehicle, commercial trucks generate a disproportionate amount of pollution as well.

Portland-area garbage hauler Heiberg Garbage is currently converting its 20-vehicle fleet to compressed natural gas-powered trucks. The initial cost is about $25,000 more per truck over an equivalent diesel-powered vehicle, plus $190,000 to install a private fueling station, according to owner Bruce Heiberg. The payback comes from natural gas prices that are about 50 percent lower than diesel costs, and are projected to be more stable into the future. Add to that that the trucks are much quieter, with no diesel smell and Hieberg sees a long-term win, “Cleaner exhaust benefits everybody.”

Add to that the multitude of buses, delivery vans, and work-related vehicles constantly in use, and the opportunities for significant alternative fuel impact become apparent.

“You can deploy 1,000 Nissan Leafs” to the general public “and you're not going to move the needle,” according to Darren Engle of Blue Star Gas. “Put alternative fuel vehicles in fleets and you will. Dollar for dollar, we displace the largest amount of gasoline and diesel.”

Two Portland companies are leading the way with vehicles that consume some of the cleanest fuels available today. Blue Star Gas distributes propane Autogas at its growing northwest network of publicly available fueling stations, and converts fleets of vehicles to run on the fuel. Swan Island-based Daimler Trucks North America is researching and testing long-haul trucks that run on compressed or liquefied natural gas.

These gaseous fuels are like the Rodney Dangerfield of alternative energy. They are not well known by the general public, but they're a vitally important component in the quest for energy independence and reduced greenhouse gases.

Many think alternative fuel means electric cars, clean diesels or hybrids like the Toyota Prius. But when businesses think green for their fleets, an increasing number are choosing propane Autogas or natural gas. For them, being green must not only be good for the environment, it must be good for the bottom line.

Although vehicles that run on gaseous fuels cost more initially, fuel cost savings that exceeds $1.50 per diesel gallon equivalent leads to a rapid return on investment. Light duty propane-powered vehicles can cost from $6,000 to $15,000 more than a gasoline-powered truck, but the payback from reduced fuel and maintenance costs recovers the initial investment in just a couple of years of commercial service.

The price premium on medium and long-haul trucks that run on compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas can approach $50,000, but the fuel cost savings balances the expense within four years, according to Daimler. Most trucks in the class have a 10-year lifespan, so the overall savings can be enormous.

Compared with petroleum-based fuels, the price of gaseous fuels is more stable, and it's all produced in North America. While natural gas vehicles typically don’t get the mileage of diesel-powered trucks, the lower fuel cost more than makes up the difference. Propane-powered vehicles have performance characteristics similar to traditional gasoline vehicles.

Propane Autogas is a low-carbon by-product of the production of natural gas or liquid petroleum. The fuel burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel, producing a lower quantity of greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions. While it has been used as a transportation fuel for nearly 100 years, most fueling stations have been operated by companies for the exclusive use of their own fleets.

Blue Star Gas is out to change that model. They operate a publicly accessible fueling station at NE 102nd and Prescott and plan to add another near the airport in the coming months. More will follow in the Portland area as more businesses adopt the fuel.

Daimler Trucks North America is at the forefront of the development of natural gas powered long-haul trucks. At their Swan Island headquarters, a full-time development team works on designing, engineering and testing the technology, which is integrated into Freightliner vehicles built in North Carolina.

Most in the industry agree that there’s no one technology that fits all applications. Battery electric vehicles work well for route-based light duty vehicles, while high-tech clean diesel technology is greatly increasing efficiency in the heart of the long-haul truck market. “The capabilities of each have their sweet spot.” according to Daimler alternative fuels product manager Brian Daniels.