Waste Management adding cleaner, natural-gas vehicles

The iconic rumbling garbage truck may have met its match: natural gas.

Waste Management on Friday will announce it is pushing forward on a nationwide plan to convert all of its 18,342 trucks from loud and smoky diesel engines to quieter and cleaner compressed natural gas-powered machines. The latest destination for the company’s CNG trucks will be the Houston area, starting at a facility in Conroe where 80 trucks will be able to refuel with gas overnight.

The Houston-based refuse collection giant is the latest in a line of major corporations, including UPS and AT&T, to expand their use of natural gas in fleet vehicles – convinced it is the cheapest and most environmentally friendly option to power their daily road operations.

“The economics and payback of natural gas are so strong that it dwarfs any other technology,” said Eric Woods, vice president of fleet and logistics for Waste Management.

The company saves $3 for each gallon-equivalent of CNG it uses instead of diesel, and recent changes in prices of heavy-duty trucks made the vehicles more viable, Woods said.

At a Waste Management truck lot in Seattle, for example, the company found that its costs dropped from up to $11 for every hour a driver worked with a truck to about $3 an hour once it converted the entire location to CNG vehicles, partly because of savings from refueling time, Woods said.

Waste Management’s CNG trucks refuel overnight from unattended slow-fill pumps at each parking spot, so they don’t have to line up and wait at a single diesel pump.

“This goes right to the heart of the business and the margin,” Woods said.

It’s also what waste pickup customers want – most of the time. At least one resident in The Woodlands has had to chase after a garbage truck because she didn’t realize it was on her block until it already moved on, Waste Mangement driver Servando Rosales said.

“She said, ‘I didn’t even hear you,’” Rosales said of the resident, who had grown used to the noisy reminder of a rumbling diesel engine before moving her garbage outside.

The trucks are decidedly less noisy than their diesel-powered counterparts, quiet enough for Rosales to talk without yelling in the cab of the vehicle, which has monitors and alarms to warn of gas leaks.

So far, the company has about 1,400 trucks running on natural gas and plans to expand that total gradually as part of its normal replacement of about 1,000 trucks annually, Woods said.

It costs Waste Management about $3 million for each large lot it converts to operate on CNG. That includes the individual fuel pumps as well as one retail CNG refueling station at each site for use by public consumers.

The company will spend about $300,000 for each new heavy-duty CNG truck, he said, about $30,000 more than the sticker price for a comparable diesel truck. The company’s CNG business model is profitable without government subsidies, Woods said.

Waste Management previously attempted to use liquefied natural gas as a fuel.

While LNG allows for more range, it costs more and is unnecessary for Waste Management because its vehicles can refuel at the same location nightly, Woods said

Eleven CNG-powered garbage and recycling trucks now are operating at Waste Management’s Conroe facility, where a consumer retail station is set to open upon receiving its final regulatory approvals.

Although the shale gas boom has sent supplies soaring and brought natural gas prices to their lowest levels in a decade, many barriers remain before it can be a truly viable option for consumer fuel, if that ever happens, experts say.

There are few CNG refueling stations and fewer CNG car options. Although vehicle conversions are possible, both manufacturers and fuel station operators have been slow to expand the options needed to make natural gas more attractive to the public.

Government and expert projections don’t see a substantial shift to natural gas in vehicles anytime soon. By 2035, compressed natural gas-powered cars and trucks are expected to account for 180,000 of the 274 million U.S. vehicles, according to projections from the U.S. Energy Information Agency.

Although the number of CNG refueling stations has grown, passing the 1,000 mark this year, it is still nowhere near as accessible as gasoline.

For companies and government agencies with vehicle fleets, however, the switch to natural gas has repeatedly proved sensible, said David Hill, vice president of operations for the natural gas economy team at Denver-based gas producer Encana.

“What we’re trying to do as an industry is really build the backbone of the refueling infrastructure” with fleet vehicles, Hill said. “Once we build the backbone across the nation, then we provide more options for consumers.”

zain.shauk@chron.com

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