Last week, Waste Management of Oregon started up a $2 million compressed natural gas fueling station in North Portland.
The Portland garbage hauler is slowly changing its fleet of diesel trucks to natural gas because, it says, the alternative fuel makes for less air pollution and a quieter ride through city neighborhoods. By October, the company will have 22 “clean air” CNG trucks serving the Portland area.
Meanwhile, Gresham Sanitary is adding a second CNG truck to its garbage fleet. So is Heiberg Garbage and Recycling of Portland.
All three companies applied for a tax credits from Oregon’s new alternative fuel incentive program, and they highlight a trend toward replacing diesel trucks with CNG.
Natural gas prices have been dropping since a fracking boom has boosted in the natural gas supply in the U.S. But that’s only one of the reasons many garbage haulers say they are trading out their diesel trucks for natural-gas-fueled alternatives.
Although natural gas still has environmental impacts, it naturally burns cleaner – emitting fewer air pollutants – than diesel.
There are new, clean diesel engines that apply a particulate filter to reduce emissions, but garbage haulers say those engines have been problematic. With the city of Portland requiring haulers to replace their trucks after 12 years in use, local companies are swapping old diesel trucks for a pricy alternative that runs on natural gas.
Waste Management reports that by switching 1,700 of its trucks from diesel to natural gas across North America, the company can reduce air particulates, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide emissions from its operations.
“The real driver is that clean air is important to our customers,” said Jackie Lang, a spokeswoman for Waste Management of Oregon. “We’ve been listening to our customers so we understand clean air is part of what they’re looking for.”
But wait a minute.
According to Kevin Downing, clean fuel specialist for Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, new diesel engines with particulate filters are actually just as clean as engines that burn natural gas.
They might even be a smidge cleaner.
“Natural gas definitely has a reputation for being a clean fuel, and it’s certainly well-deserved,” Downing said. “What’s happened is that clean diesel has caught up to it.”
However, two garbage haulers in the Portland area say they opted to spend more on CNG trucks rather than risk investing in clean diesel engines that might not work.
Gresham Sanitary is in the process of installing a second CNG fueling station and adding a second CNG truck to its fleet of around 30 vehicles.
According to general manager Matt Miller, clean air is very important to his company, but that’s not the main reason for the switch.
“The largest consideration is the price difference,” he said.
Another consideration: The city of Portland’s requirements for replacing old garbage trucks.
“CNG keeps us compliant,” Miller said.
Micheal Armstrong, a sustainability manager for the city of Portland, said the city mandates that no hauler truck be older than 12 years and that new trucks have to comply with new emissions standards.
“We were trying to get the oldest, dirtiest vehicles off the road,” he said.
Miller said buying a new CNG truck can be quite spendy – they’re close to $300,000 apiece. But his company decided that would be better than investing in a diesel truck that meets new standards but doesn’t run very well.
“There have been a lot of issues with new diesel trucks,” said Miller. “We’ve heard a lot of horror stories.”
The same is true for Heiberg Garbage and Recycling.
“Our trucks go house to house to house, stopping every 50 feet,” said co-owner Bruce Heiberg. “We’ve had quite a bit of problems with clean diesel. They’re not designed to work in that environment. They’re designed to be going 50 miles an hour.”
Heiberg’s company opened its own small CNG fueling station in February and is now adding a second CNG garbage truck to its fleet of 20 trucks. Heiberg’s CNG pumping station cost $58,000 to build, but it gives the company the ability to buy fuel at nearly half price. Diesel prices are running around $3.85 per gallon, he said, while a gallon of compressed natural gas costs $1.99.
“We’re excited about it – a little anxious,” he said. “It’s cheaper than diesel if you don’t count the start-up cost of building your station. And we think this is the future of garbage and recycling in Oregon.”