April 2011

Transit Fleets Come Clean as Alternative-Fuel Technology Comes of Age

by Alex Roman, Managing Editor

Even with the EPA facing a crippling slash in funding as part of the House of Representatives' attempts to cut the nation's budget, transit agencies around the nation are moving more and more toward alternative fuels as a way to be environmentally friendly to the communities they serve, as well as reap possible cost-saving benefits.

Agencies gravitating toward alternative fuels are nothing new, however, with some finding themselves out in front on the so-called "bleeding edge" of many of these fuels since the early 1990s. Those early-adopting agencies will tell you now, though, that alternative fuels have finally matured, making investment in the technologies less challenging.

METRO Magazine spoke to some transit agencies currently using alternative fuels in their bus fleets — ranging from natural gas to hydrogen to hybrids - about their programs and experiences when making the green-friendly leap away from traditional diesel fuel.  

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)

In January, Metro retired the last of its diesel buses and became the "first major transit agency in the world to operate only alternative clean-fueled buses," the majority of which are compressed natural gas (CNG).

"The local community, environmental groups and labor groups were all very pleased with it. To me, it was pretty strange. When I was a bus operator, we ran all diesels, so it's kind of odd not to have any of them now," says Metro CEO Art Leahy. "Using alternative fuels is good for the environment, but it also helps wean America from dependence on foreign fuel." 

With smog in the L.A. basin a huge issue and the agency growing more aware of its obligation to not contribute more air pollution in the areas it served, Metro began focusing on cleaning up its bus fleet in the 1980s. The agency began using methanol buses in the early '90s, which in the long run proved to be too corrosive for bus engines. After also experimenting with ethanol and propane, Metro eventually decided to go with CNG.

"When we decided to move toward alternative fuels, we were ahead of both the EPA and CARB (California Air Resources Board). Diesel buses had cleaned up significantly, but the board was willing to stay on this path because they wanted to clean up the air," he says. "Having made this conversion over the past 15 to 20 years, we have now reduced greenhouse gas emissions by around 300,000 pounds per day." 

Also, when getting rid of its diesels, Leahy says Metro permanently disabled the engines so nobody could buy the buses and continue to use them to pollute the area.

Leahy, who credits the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for making Metro's clean-air bus fleet possible with their CNG credits and other support, adds that the buses have performed very well without any degradation in performance compared to diesel buses. He also says that while the cost for the buses is more expensive, Metro pays less for fuel and is proud of its contribution toward Los Angeles' cleaner air.

The road to Metro's success wasn't easy, however, since at the beginning of its program CNG use was in its early stages.

"I was chief operating officer at the time we began using CNG, and we were really worried how on earth we were going to fuel 2,000 buses and still make it on time for rollout. Today, the worries have all become moot," Leahy says. "It's important to know this conversion occurred over a long period of time. The first five or six years were the most difficult." 

Metro's clean-air bus fleet is just one aspect of its green program, which also includes widespread use of solar panels at bus maintenance facilities and other energy saving devices to cut energy costs; recycling; and building and retrofitting new transit facilities with sustainable materials and practices. 

Installation of solar panels, LED lights and other energy saving features as well as recycling save Metro more than $1 million annually in operating costs, according to the agency. The solar panels alone reduced Metro's carbon footprint by 16,500 metric tons in 2010, the equivalent of removing 3,200 private cars from Los Angeles area streets and freeways.

Leahy advises any agency looking into making the switch to alternative fuels, in general, and, specifically to CNG, to reach out to an agency like Metro and pay a visit to learn from their experiences.  

"Learn from others," he says. "You don't have to be on the bleeding edge, because we've done the work for you."

Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T)

Like Metro, The T's move toward alternative fuels began in the '80s, when the Texas' State Legislature and Department of Transportation started encouraging local transit systems to look at alternative fuels, including natural gas.

"The T began looking into alternative fuels, with sort of an understanding that we have a lot of natural gas here in Texas," says The T's President/Executive Director Dick Ruddell. "Eventually, we decided that natural gas would be the best move for us and ordered our first CNG bus in 1991." 

The T's move toward CNG took a natural progression, with the authority gradually purchasing buses as older buses reached retirement age. The whole process took most of the '90s, with The T retiring its last diesel bus around 2000. 

"[With] every purchase, it seemed the technology just got better and better," says Ruddell. "By the time we reached the 2000s, the technology really came of age."  

Like Leahy, Ruddell explains that The T's learning curve in the beginning was huge, since the range of CNG-powered buses was very short at the time and there were still issues with how to set up the compressors that compressed the fuel. 

"Those two issues probably are the reason why a lot of systems back in the 90s tried natural gas then gave up on it," he says.

Now after figuring out the learning curve, The T has an advanced and well-developed compressor station with four compressors operating at all times and an extra available in case one is down for maintenance and, with the technology maturing, CNG buses have a comparable range to their diesel predecessors, Ruddell explains. He also adds that getting his maintenance staff up to speed through training provides a knowledgeable source that is always on hand should issues arise.

Besides lowering its environmental footprint due to the lower emissions, Ruddell says the authority has experienced some additional benefits through the use of CNG.

"The maintenance department reports that oil change and engine servicing intervals have been extended by 80 percent. And, when we do overhaul these engines, they are cleaner inside than they would be if we were still operating diesels because CNG is a cleaner burning fuel," he says. "Things like this are kind of internal and kind of in the weeds out there, but they are certainly advantages to operating a CNG fleet."

While the authority is committed to CNG down the road and has made all the necessary infrastructure investments to prove it, such as the fueling stations, Ruddell says The T is not so committed that it won't look at other alternative fuels.

"I think other and better fuels will come along, so we very much are interested in new alternative fuels as they are developed and tried," he says. 

For agencies interested in exploring alternative fuels such as CNG, Ruddell advises that they go out to visit authorities such as The T, so that they understand how the fuels work, the benefits and the financial investment it takes to build the infrastructure to support usage. For those looking into natural gas, he also encourages joining the Transit Natural Gas Coalition, where those interested can learn more from both users and suppliers. 


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