Copyright 2008, Traffic World, Inc.
The race for carbon-neutral trucks is on, but the biggest roadblock could be finding the alternative fuels to power them and generate the cost savings promised to carriers and their customers.
Volvo Group wants to pave the way into the "CO2-neutral" truck market. With President Bush in tow, the Goteborg, Sweden-based company made a splash at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference March 5, unveiling seven experimental trucks that run on renewable fuels that emit no excess CO2, as well as a hybrid diesel-electric vehicle from Mack Trucks.
"Sweden is punching way above its weight class" by developing such engines, said Alexander Karsner, assistant secretary at the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the Department of Energy, at the unveiling. "It''s hard to believe it has taken this long to do something so intelligent."
CO2-neutral engines go a step beyond hybrid diesel engines that rely on a combination of electric power and regular diesel to reduce CO2 emissions.
CO2-neutral engines burn fuels produced from renewable raw materials such as biomass (which includes switchgrass, hemp and sugarcane), therefore the same amount of CO2 is generated as is absorbed by the source material during its growth - which results in no increase in atmospheric CO2.
"The faster we can burn hybrid fuels, the faster we''ll have a CO2 neutral environment," said Paul Vikner, president and CEO of Mack, a Volvo subsidiary. And with electric-diesel hybrids like that being tested by Mack, "We can improve fuel efficiency by up to 50 percent, in addition to the environmental impact," he said.
Three of the hybrid fuel trucks on display ran on liquid fuel, three on gaseous fuels and one on a combination of biogas and diesel. None of these fuels, however, is widely available.
"We have the technology but not the fuel," said Leif Johansson, CEO of Volvo Group. "The problem is finding fuel to test-run them."
Just trying to locate standard diesel fuel at an affordable price is becoming more difficult by the week.
Diesel prices hit an all-time high national average of $3.819 a gallon the week of March 10. The average price has grown 17.2 percent since Jan. 28, adding 56 cents, or nearly 10 cents a week, to pump prices. The national high of $3.989 in New England was the highest price ever recorded for diesel in any region of the country.
It suggests that at some sites the price was already beyond $4 a gallon and that, say truckers and shippers, puts a new economic imperative on the search for alternative fuels and fuel economy.
Aside from cleaning the air, makers of hybrid diesel-electric vehicles now in production - a group that includes Peterbilt, Kenworth, Freightliner and International, as well as Volvo - are selling their customers on greater fuel efficiency and cost savings.
However, until recently those manufacturers have mostly concentrated on the medium-duty truck market.
For long-haul trucking, fuel savings have been estimated at 5 to 8 percent with hybrid trucks, according to Vikner. For local pickup and delivery operations, the savings may be much greater.
"We''re close to buying $4 per gallon diesel off the rack right now," said David Hoover, director of outbound logistics for Meijer, a Lansing, Mich.-based retail and supermarket chain with stores in five Midwestern states.
Meijer began investing in biodiesel for its private truck fleet four years ago.
"I think for the long-haul trucking industry it could take a longer time to get the same cost savings," Hoover said. But for local switching and grocery truck delivery fleets, "you''re absolutely going to see those paybacks.
"To be a competitor (in the retail market), anything we can do (to reduce costs) is important. The cost of transporting goods is a major impact on our shelf price. We don''t want to pass that on to the consumer."
Truck owners, including owner-operators, can apply for loans to help defray the cost of new products and technologies that help cut fuel consumption though the Environmental Protection Agency''s SmartWay Transport Partnership.
In December, the U.S. government appropriated $38 billion in loan guarantees for clean energy projects. Several companies that would produce fuel that can be burned in Volvo''s advanced engines have already applied for loans, including Choren USA, Endicott Biofuels and Iogen Biorefinery Partners.