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Record audience gathers to talk ‘green’ trucks

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- The general sentiment at this year’s Green Truck Summit, attended by more than 750 suppliers, regulators and environmentally-conscious fleet managers, was that alternative fuel vehicles have moved beyond the...

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — The general sentiment at this year’s Green Truck Summit, attended by more than 750 suppliers, regulators and environmentally-conscious fleet managers, was that alternative fuel vehicles have moved beyond the “science project” stage and are now delivering acceptable paybacks when placed into the appropriate applications.

Dr. Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy, kickstarted the event with an appeal to fleets to diversify the sources of fuel they use to power their vehicles. “Suppose you were a meat eater and all you liked was beef, it was the only thing you ate,” he said. “If the price of beef goes up, you have to pay for it.”

By contrast, an individual who enjoyed a wider range of food, say chicken, rice and vegetables, would be protected from volatile meat prices in much the same way a transport company that uses a variety of fuels to power its fleet is less exposed to surging oil prices, Chu noted.

He seemed particularly fond of natural gas as a viable alternative fuel.

“For an 18-wheeler, it’s no longer a debate whether you can use it,” he said. “Even though it costs 50-100% more than a conventional truck, that price will come down very rapidly because now there are competitors and the fuel costs roughly half as much (as diesel) per equivalent gallon.”

Chu noted there are still challenges with natural gas, namely the weight of compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks. He said the US Department of Energy will fund research that will hopefully lead to a cost-effective composite tank that’s lighter weight and offers greater capacity.

Chu also lauded recent developments in battery technology that make electric delivery vehicles more practical. He said about a week ago, Envia produced a 400 Watt-hours/kilogram (Wh/kg) lithium ion battery with double the energy of its predecessors, reducing the cost of energy from $600-$700 per kilowatt hour (kWh) to about $300 per kWh.

“Our goal is to by 2020, to make electric vehicles considerably less money to own and operate than the conventional trucks we own today,” Chu said.

John Boesel, president and CEO of Calstart, which organized the event along with the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), said the US accounts for 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the oil consumed on any given day.

“That’s a pretty challenging ratio to sustain, given the increase in population in Asia and elsewhere,” he said. He noted the US now spends more than US$400 billion a year to import oil. “That’s a lot of money that’s going overseas that if we were to keep here in this country would be very helpful for our economy.”

Another benefit of adopting more environmentally friendly fuels is that many of the technologies are now being developed here in North America. As battery technology sourced from China has become more expensive, “domestic mining becomes more viable,” Boesel said. He noted an example of a new rare earth mine being opened in California while another California company is now extracting lithium from existing geothermal wells.

Doyle Sumrall, senior director of business development with NTEA, shared some of the organization’s research that indicated trucking companies and municipalities plan to continue greening their fleets. The benefits of doing so, he said, have never been more obvious.

“We are getting a much clearer vision,” Sumrall said. “Our understanding of what these technologies are and how they work and how they can be applied is becoming clearer.”

Still, the key to furthering the advance of clean trucks is to ensure the right technologies are being used in the appropriate applications, Boesel added.

“We have seen technologies deployed by fleets in the wrong applications and then the fleet is unhappy.”

With alternative fueled trucks proving themselves in the field, Boesel listed four things that must take place to build volumes to levels where purchase price is no longer a deterrent: Suppliers and OEMs must invest in the future and work continuously to improve performance and to lower the cost of their products; “outstanding” service and support must be available to fleets that deploy green trucks; fleets must be willing to invest in the technologies and account for high future oil prices in their economic models; and government and policymakers must provide support via incentives.

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