As the $5 mark approaches for diesel, transportation companies look at other ways to power their vehicles — including natural gas.
For local transportation companies, it’s not easy being green.
They make their money hauling products, people and waste in diesel-guzzling, exhaust-spewing rigs. They’re the ones who can least afford to drive less.
But with diesel prices approaching $5 a gallon and global warming warnings growing more dire, those companies are starting to look for alternatives.
“I have children and I have grandchildren, and I think the government will eventually move toward mandating more green electricity and more green fuels,” said Gary Marzorati, president of William Charles, which owns Rock River Disposal and several other companies. Marzorati is also on the BusinessRockford.com advisory board.
“It’s moving that way, and we always like to be out in front. “It’s not just a good thing, it’s the way things are going to be.”
Rock River Disposal recently started using a cleaner-burning, propane-powered trash hauler. Marzorati and others also are talking with Clean Energy, the largest provider of vehicular natural gas in North America, about opening a filling station here.
These efforts are key for the Rock River Valley’s economy because much of the business growth here is with distribution centers, trucking firms and other logistics operations. Some companies, including Bay Valley Foods in Rochelle, have expanded despite fuel costs. But economic leaders worry whether others will follow.
“A lot of their models didn’t have diesel fuel at the price it is today,” said Janyce Fadden, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council and executive director of the I-39 Logistics Corridor Association. “People are not prepared to predict how that will change their decisions in terms of distribution networks.”
What a gas
Legendary oilman and Clean Energy founder T. Boone Pickens has seen the writing on the wall.
He has proposed using wind energy instead of natural gas to create electricity, saving the natural gas for transportation.
“It’s the cleanest fossil fuel you can use,” Jo-Ann Yantzis, regional manager for Clean Energy, said at a Rockford presentation this month.
For example, 2010-model natural-gas engines for medium heavy-duty trucks are six times cleaner in smog-causing nitrogen oxides than new “clean diesel” engines on the market. They also cut greenhouse gases 23 percent and reduce soot.
Besides the environmental benefits, natural gas saves at least 50 cents per equivalent gallon of diesel, she said. But a trash hauler powered by natural gas costs $50,000 to $60,000 more than a conventional truck. So a $32,000 federal tax credit and grant programs are available to help pay for vehicles.
Besides, Yantzis said, government requirements for new soot filters and cleaner-burning engines in conventional diesel vehicles will reduce the difference in capital costs over the next few years.
Clean Energy’s proposal is to open a compressed natural gas fueling station in Rockford as early as next year. Rock River Disposal and other vehicle fleets could use the station, which would be in a central location, such as Chicago Rockford International Airport.
For it to be economically viable, though, several users would have to join together to guarantee regular business. Rockford Mass Transit District and the airport are considering the idea; other candidates may yet be approached.
Compressed natural gas can’t power semis and other class A trucks, just smaller commercial vehicles. A separate liquefied natural gas filling station would be needed for the big rigs. Garnet Glover, Clean Energy’s general manager for the eastern U.S. and Canada, said the Rockford area may have enough regional trucking companies — with vehicles that travel about 250 miles a day — to make that work, too.
“It’s kind of the chicken and the egg,” Marzorati said. “If someone starts it, other people will follow.”
Airfield of dreams
The airport makes sense as a location because it’s the site of Freedom Field, a Winnebago County initiative to develop sources of alternative energy.
Freedom Field was conceived as a hydrogen-fuel center, part of a Midwestern network, board Chairman John Holmstrom said. But the network never happened, so local leaders aimed their project toward biomass — growing plant matter for fuel — and solar energy.
But if the private Clean Energy successfully develops fueling centers in places like Rockford, Holmstrom said, the company could eventually develop its own network.
Several airport tenants could benefit from an alternative-fuel center.
The airport already uses some “flex fuel” vehicles that run on an ethanol blend, Executive Director Bob O’Brien said. He’s interested in other types of vehicles to cut soaring fuel costs.
The rising cost of fuel “isn’t a one-time event,” he said. “It’s becoming painfully clear to everybody that we cannot continue to do just what we’ve been doing.”
UPS Inc. could be a potential user. The global delivery company is the largest tenant at the airport.
It has 1,600 alternative-fuel vehicles in its 94,000-vehicle fleet, although none are based in Rockford.
Spokeswoman Christine Hand said UPS is testing various technologies — electric, gas/electric hybrids, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, propane and hydraulics — to see which work best in different environments. Eventually, Rockford will see some of those vehicles.
UPS has taken other steps to cut fuel costs. It famously sets delivery routes to reduce left turns, thus reducing time sitting in the middle of traffic. In 2007, UPS shaved 30 million miles — and 3 million gallons of gas — off its U.S. routes with new planning software.
It’s not just a way to save money and help the environment, she said. Boasting their industry’s largest fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles is a marketing tool.
“UPS is sensitive to how people feel about the companies they do business with,” Hand said. “We want them to understand that we care about the environment.”
The best technologies may be yet to come.
Natural gas may be cleaner than diesel, but it’s still a fossil fuel. Ethanol may reduce our reliance on foreign oil, but when it comes from soy or corn, it actually has a worse “ground to tank” carbon footprint than gasoline, said Brian Granahan, staff attorney for nonprofit advocacy group Environment Illinois.
His group believes the key is electric-based alternatives. By putting public and private money into research, Granahan says, the U.S. could develop transportation infrastructure to move goods through plug-in hybrids.
That means solar, wind and other renewable forms of electricity generation, hooked up to a comprehensive national grid so vehicles are never without a power source.
The Clean Energy folks agree that natural gas is just a “bridge” until hydrogen and other renewable transportation energy sources are developed.
Such an investment will take years, so Granahan proposes other short-term measures to cut costs and environmental impact.
Rather than focus on short-term solutions for transportation, he said, companies could install alternative-energy technology to heat, cool and power their facilities. The cost savings could then be used to develop real long-term solutions for transportation needs.
“That might not necessarily help them get goods from point A to point B at a cheaper price or a lower environmental impact immediately, but ultimately it will help their business,” he said.
He said businesses should lobby the government to support more energy-efficient transportation options, from upgrading the freight rail system to expanding the electric grid, because the private sector has more power than it realizes.
“What businesses do have is the ability to influence their legislators by being a source of jobs and a source of revenue. ... Right now legislators are just hearing from a bunch of environmentalists.
“The truth is, we’ve got to change the model because gas prices aren’t coming down anytime soon.”
Thomas V. Bona can be reached at (815) 987-1343 or email@example.com.
How to get involved
If your company or organization is interested in learning more about natural gas to fuel your vehicles, contact John Holmstrom at William Charles, (815) 963-7400 or firstname.lastname@example.org.