TORONTO, Ont. – Despite the chilling effects an extremely cold winter had on its trucks, Progressive Waste Solutions Ltd. is determined to more than double the size of its CNG fleet, and to build the necessary supporting infrastructure.
David West, vice-president of purchasing and fleet maintenance for the Toronto-based waste collection company, was a presenter at the Natural Gas Vehicles Canada conference, where he told attendees that CNG trucks make up 10% of the Progressive Waste fleet currently but that number is expected to grow.
“In North American today, we run just over 400 (419 to be exact) compressed natural gas vehicles. It has not been a smooth growth, but it is getting better. We’ve made significant investments in our infrastructure projects. Today we own and operate 10 private stations and utilize 3 passcode facilities for smaller districts. As I speak to you today, we have no fewer than three stations under construction, four expansion projects and plan utilization of landfill gas or green gas to power our vehicles,” he said.
“This year CNG represents almost 50% of our total cap ex [capital expenditure] replacement of our fleet. We expect to purchase somewhere in the nature of 400-450 vehicles. That’s an annual purchase for us.”
According to West, Progressive Waste spends no less than one year planning the construction of every new refuelling station, although “we’re now thinking it should be 18 months. We’ve experienced delay after delay with the planning and permitting and zoning process.”
He added that there are other things that can affect the timing of station builds as well, including building and fire codes. “Red tape is an inevitable part of the function.”
Once a site is up and running, it requires strict and careful maintenance by qualified personal. It also needs to be kept busy.
“Compression maximization is key. If you’re going to make the investment, the trucks you can put on that investment, the better it is going to be. There is a sweet spot. At least in our experience, anything less than 25 units doesn’t make sense for us.”
What does make sense for Progressive Waste is to have trained, professional experts man the stations.
“Once the station is up and running, keeping it running smoothly is essential. Train your operators in the proper function of fueling. We put all our drivers through CNG 101, which is a training course designed in conjunction with CNG manufacturers. This gives an understanding of the business of natural gas as well as answers to commonly asked questions to about the physics and dangers and how natural gas should be respected. This includes proper procedures and emergency readiness. If it can happen it will happen. There are reasons for auto detection technologies and shutdowns. I have first-hand experience things can happen,” said West.
“CNG vehicles are not diesels. Nor are they gasoline. CNG does have different characteristics than these fuels and should be treated with respect. We spend a lot of time on this function, training and retraining and retraining.”
He added that routine maintenance and replacement of refuelling station parts and equipment is critical, and added that transportation companies need to know the rules regarding responsibility for the stations. West explained that in Ontario, for example, the operator of the station is required to be on-site.
According to West, having agreements with companies that specialize in running and maintaining natural gas stations has been effective and efficient. “We are trash guys. We know garbage and that is our core business. We are not compressed natural gas maintenance experts. We expect the station to operate flawlessly and as planned, as unplanned downtime can affect maintenance issues and our costs.”
That Progressive Waste is still committed to expanding its natural gas fleet may come as a bit of a surprise to some who know of the “myriad of problems” the company experienced in the winter, and due to the way garbage trucks are used, which has led West to fear the CNGs will not last as long as diesel units in Progressive’s applications.
“This is not a steady state RPM. It’s all on the throttle or all on the brakes. There is no in-between. We are very tough on our equipment. We have had numeral problems with how we operate, and part is the learning curve as we adapt to the changing dynamics of the CNG engine. They’re more temperamental in our opinion and are susceptible to changes in environmental conditions.
“This past winter wrecked absolute havoc on our Canadian fleet, especially in operations associated in our northern climates. Record colds necessitated certain cold-weather appliances. The waste sector is small in terms of transportation industry, and although we are competitors, we all communicated openly and honestly with each other. We remain cautiously optimistic that the changes made this summer will be positive in the winter, but only time will tell.
“It is no secret that in certain parts of Canada we were down 100% of our fleet, based on certain environmental conditions. I will be honest: Cummins has been very, very good with their reply to this problem. Some of our competitors also had this issue, related to the deep, deep cold and the operational cycles for our Northern Ontario fleet…It hit Cummins out of left field as it did us. We didn’t lose contracts but we had operational disappointments, but the cities maintained with us and we were able to backfill with diesels.”
Still, Progressive Waste is committed to them, not only because some cities require alternative fuels or proof of ecologically sound practices and technologies, and because the company believes it is important to take steps to be environmentally responsible, but because of the savings when things are operating smoothly. The company typically burns 40 million gallons of diesel annually. Calculating diesel fuel costs $1.08 per litre and comparing it to the price of CNG at (including all compression costs taxes and maintenance, not just the raw commodity charge), using natural gas should save Progressive Waste between 35% and 55%.