By Christopher Lyon
Going green doesn’t always mean mainstream alternative fuels. Although they do play a key role, with today’s low conventional fuel prices, many fleets are having a difficult time justifying adoption of alternative fuel vehicles. Some of the offerings can be expensive, and, given current fuel prices, it is possible to not get a return on investment (ROI) in the life cycle of vehicles being purchased. It’s important to note that while alternatives can be more expensive to purchase, the cost factor is not necessarily the end of the story. Factors such as lifetime maintenance costs and the possibility of fuel price fluctuations during the deployed life of the vehicle can mitigate purchase price differences. In some instances, the vehicle’s life cycle can be extended due to different maintenance requirements and effects of using cleaner fuels on the life of the powerplant. In general, being green or sustainable means significant environmental effects have been reduced and more work is being accomplished with fewer resources. To be clear, there’s no single solution for fleets contemplating a green transition. Before going this route, it’s important to do your homework, get a full understanding of what’s involved and consider the implications for your operations.
Defining green fleets
Being green encompasses much more than just implementing a mainstream alternative fuel. In many cases, it even goes beyond strict vehicle operation standards. In essence, it can be defined as reducing total greenhouse gas emissions, conventional fuel consumption (i.e., gasoline and diesel), criteria emissions, and waste sent to landfills. Oftentimes, vehicles are the most publicly visible part of a green or sustainability program. However, shop operations can contribute to any green initiatives. It’s important to start with a top-down look at shop operations and find viable ways to embrace green practices. Suggestions include using re-refined/recycled lubricants and non-toxic cleaning compounds. These are just a few examples demonstrating the many activities that can further sustainable and green efforts, besides converting vehicles.
Green conventional trucks
As fleet professionals, it’s easy to overlook the conventional truck. Significant fuel savings can be achieved with some forward thinking and design exploration. When matched with the proper drive cycle, this approach can be very effective. To start, idle management opportunities represent relatively simple (and, sometimes, low-cost or cost-free) action items. By definition, idle management implies the main powerplant is not in use. When the work gets done while the powerplant is not running (when using a stored energy solution like electric or hydraulic PTO operation, for example), vehicle emissions, operation costs and maintenance requirements are significantly reduced. Vehicle idling is a similar concept — except it includes a running engine and fuel consumption. Mitigating unnecessary idling yields instant payback at little or no cost.
Powertrain optimization (matching components correctly) can have a huge influence on overall fuel economy. A properly designed powertrain guarantees the truck engine will operate within its peak efficiency band in most operational environments. Optimizing powertrains for ultimate fuel economy is not difficult but will require a little more thought and planning by the fleet specification team (internal and external resources). Many truck dealers and suppliers have software that matches engines, transmissions and final drive gear ratios to achieve maximum fuel efficiency without sacrificing performance requirements. Aerodynamics, reduced rolling resistance tires, weight reduction and driver behavior modification are other areas of opportunity. Another significant option involves finding ways to decrease the operating weight of the vehicle, ultimately reducing energy required during a truck’s life cycle.
Adopting alternative fuels
In the conventional fuel market, we’ve seen more price volatility in the last decade than in the previous one. As prices began to inch higher, beginning in 2005, alternative fuels became the topic of conversation and delivered an easy-to-visualize ROI. In 2008, when prices reached record levels, fleets that had adopted alternative fuels (like compressed natural gas and propane autogas) were hailed as money savers and environmental stewards — a definitive win-win for the fleet community. As markets cooled off and fuel prices stabilized a year later, the alternative fuels buzz followed suit. This pattern has become cyclical. When prices rise, enthusiasm for alternative fuel and advanced technology increases. As prices fall, interest and action tend to fall by the wayside. Many fleets that have not yet adopted an alternative fuels position take a wait-and-see approach. With low conventional fuel prices, they’re having a hard time justifying the financial commitment to enter the alternative fuels market; they aren’t seeing the ROI.
Looking at historical trends, it’s worth asking whether or not it’s affordable to look into alternative fuels and advanced technologies. Although current conventional fuel prices are low, standing on the sidelines and waiting for a market shift may prove costly as vehicle fleets are currently averaging nine years of service life. Barring any unforeseen major conflicts or disruption in the oil supply, indicators suggest a few more years of low fuel prices. After reaching what was considered an all-time high in 2007, EIA data indicates peak fuel consumption in the U.S. is now climbing beyond the 2007 level. Ultimately, this will just put upward pressure on fuel prices; fuel prices will rise, the global economy will expand, and all commodity prices will increase (including oil). Recognizing these opportunities now and installing a well-crafted plan to implement correct technology for specific applications can put many fleets well ahead of the curve. Knowing the drive cycle can help identify the right technology for certain applications. Understanding duty cycle will determine if a proposed alternative is doable from operational and economic standpoints.
A drive cycle refers to how vehicles are used and is often plotted graphically as a series of data points representing vehicle speed versus time. It can include:
- Maximum/average speed
- Idle time
- Engine-off time
Duty cycle gauges how much or how often a vehicle is utilized. This metric assesses:
- Hours per day
- Days per week
- Average miles per cycle
- Total miles per cycle
Once you grasp these dynamics, you can identify the alternative fuel and/or advanced technology that best aligns with your organizational goals.
Regardless of the direction your fleet takes (making conventional trucks more efficient, maintaining status quo or investing in alternative fuels/advanced technologies), it’s imperative to define organizational objectives before moving forward. Common company priorities include:
- Fuel cost reduction
- Lower total cost of ownership
- Public image
- Continuity of fuel supply
- Regulatory compliance
Other factors to consider in the decision-making process include required capital investment, desired return on investment, vehicle and technology availability, and fuel access in a given geographic area.
Christopher Lyon is director of fleet relations, NTEA, the association for the work truck industry. NTEA provides in-depth technical information, education, and member programs and services, and produces The Work Truck Show (worktruckshow.com). Visit ntea.com/fleetresources for articles, training offerings, regulatory information, and more. Green Truck Association (GTA), an NTEA affiliate division, offers a variety of resources to educate its members on techniques and technology that can improve fleet efficiency, reduce emissions across time, and lower the risk of fuel price volatility driving up operating expenses. GTA fleet members can get involved in a data logger drive and duty cycle program that provides information on how vehicles operate in varying environments; find details at greentruckassociation.com.