BIODIESEL, HYBRIDS & MORE

Rolf Lockwood

February 27, 2008 Vol. 4, No. 5

About this time last year I wrote that hybrid diesel/electric vehicles had dominated the Work Truck Show. Well, I’m in Atlanta as I write this, and I can tell you that the 2008 version is no different. Well, not quite true, because there are also all-electric commercial trucks on display here, including one Canadian and one British, not to mention others powered by CNG, LPG, and you name it (I’m going to save all that for my next newsletter). As well, I attended a good presentation on the hydraulic hybrid efforts of the Bosch Rexroth folks.

It’s been full of interesting chatter, the unofficial theme being alternative power by one means or another.

The show is run – and very efficiently — by the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), which is holding its 44th annual convention here as well. And a key part of the gathering, like last year, was the all-day Hybrid Truck & Alternative Fuels Summit this past Monday. The fuels angle was new this time out, and frankly, after hearing and reading and writing so much about hybrids over the last couple of years, I was glad of the addition.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the day, in fact, was an address by Dr. Richard Nelson, a professor at Kansas State University and a member of the U.S. National BioDiesel Board. It was interesting in large part because he didn’t assume the evangelical stance that seems so common amongst biofuel supporters. Nelson endeared himself to me, and to the 500 or so people in his audience, I’d guess, by acknowledging that things aren’t perfect in a burgeoning industry where 20 or so retail fuel stations sell a product called BioWillie. Oh, please…

For the uninitiated, that reference is to the fact that biodiesel’s poster boy is another Nelson, country singer Willie Nelson, who has lent his considerable name to the marketing efforts of one particular fuel supplier.

In any case, while Prof. Nelson is clearly a biodiesel booster, he said that the biggest roadblock in the way of the fuel’s further expansion is the matter of fuel quality.

“It’s the number one issue facing this industry,” he said, adding that a B20 blend (20% biofuel mixed with 80% distillate) “will not be a factor if fuel quality cannot be met on a consistent basis.”

There is indeed a standard, called ASTM D 6751-07b, that must be met to satisfy the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of a true biodiesel fuel. It’s feedstock-neutral, meaning it applies only to the end result, no matter whether the fuel is sourced from soybean oil or animal fats or wood pulp or whatever else.

In a 2006 survey done by random sampling of 39 U.S. biodiesel blenders, Nelson noted, 59% of those samples failed to meet the ASTM spec. Some 30% of them failed specifically on glycerine content, too much of which produces very poor cold-weather performance. The standard, not incidentally, was revised not long ago to meet those cold-weather concerns that caused a ruckus amongst biodiesel users in Minnesota two years ago.

Things were looking up in another survey last year, in which the biodiesel tested was on spec 89.6% of the time overall. But there’s a story behind that number when you break the samples down according to the size of the company doing the ‘refining’ – with large producers, B100 biodiesel was on spec 94% of the time, but that fell to 68% with mid-sized producers, and a scary 28% with small companies.

The lesson is clear. Nelson said you must know your supplier, know that the ASTM standard is being applied, and you must know the feedstock being used. That’s because performance varies greatly from one to the other. Problems like stability in summer, filter plugging, degradation of engine parts, and cold-weather failures can be due to feedstock issues. Nelson said you should go so far as
to demand a certificate guaranteeing the quality of the fuel you’re buying.

ON THE DIESEL/ELECTRIC HYBRID FRONT, there’s been significant news here at The Work Truck Show, led by Freightliner’s first showing of its M2e drop-frame beverage truck. It’s the first item in this edition’s group of new products, a class-6 machine with Cummins ISB diesel power and of course the ever-present Eaton electric drive unit. As well as the example on display in Atlanta, six others were built just last week.

Dave Bryant, sales manager for Business Class vocational sales at Freightliner, led me on a detailed tour of the truck and described the efforts under way to ensure that dealers understand the hybrid idea in general and the company’s offering in particular. He said they’re
definitely ready to build trucks now, adding that they’re going about it in a very deliberate way.

“We have a plan, we’re working the plan,” he told me.
International is also pursuing the beverage industry, according to Steve Guillaume, medium-duty general manager at the Chicago outfit. Not just with a truck but a tractor too, and before the year is through they’ll have vehicles built, he promised. That’s evidence, he said, that the hybrid idea is growing beyond the narrow realm of the utility bucket truck.

Guillaume said International has built 100 hybrid diesel/electric trucks so far, almost all in customer hands, with a goal of 1000 sales in 2008. First to go into line production, as of last fall, the company is now building 50 DuraStar hybrids per month.

The commercialization process is thus moving forward, but the upcharge required to buy a hybrid medium-duty truck is typically in the $40-45,000 range, he told me. Plus about $15,000 if you also want the electric PTO.

“By 2010, I would say that those costs would be half that,” he added.

Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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