Some NJ Trucks Fueling up on Natural Gas Rather Than Dirty Diesel

With price of natural gas at historic lows, switching to the cleaner fuel makes economic -- and environmental -- sense

In a sign that businesses may be shifting to cleaner-burning fuels to power their fleets, a new report suggests that many communities in the metropolitan area are converting garbage trucks to run on natural gas instead of diesel fuel.

According to “Tomorrow’s Trucks: Leaving the Era of Oil Behind,” a report released yesterday by the national nonprofit organization Energy Vision, there has been a rapid rise in the use of natural gas to fuel trucks — a tenfold increase over the past five years.

“Heavy duty trucks have been among the most polluting and fuel-consuming fleets in the region,’’ said Joanna Underwood, president of Energy Vision, a New York-based organization. “This shift has eliminated the need for 4.52 million gallons of diesel fuel, producing a fuel-cost savings of $4.5 million to $6 million a year.’’

In New Jersey, there were literally no natural-gas garbage trucks five years ago, but today there are more than 180, according to Chuck Feinberg, chairman of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, an organization devoted to promoting use of alternatively fueled vehicles.

The use of these trucks has required the build-out of a natural gas refueling infrastructure, and some utilities in New Jersey, are trying to help with that effort.

The state’s Energy Master Plan suggests promoting the conversion of company fleets to natural gas, especially those relying on heavy-duty trucks. That policy could achieve big savings for companies, given the steep drop in fuel prices for natural gas.

Last year, the state approved a pilot program for New Jersey Natural Gas in which the Wall Township utility agreed to spend up to $10 million to build compressed natural gas refueling stations in its territory. The pilot is viewed as helping the state boost the market for alternative-fueled vehicles, a strategy it hopes will reduce reliance on petroleum-based fuels, lower transportation costs for consumers, and curb emissions that contribute to global climate change.

Statewide, New Jersey has 27 compressed natural gas refueling stations. There are 71 refueling stations for compressed natural gas in the region, according to the study.

Energy Vision’s research also found that the fleets’ shift to natural gas cut greenhouse gases — the biggest contributor to climate change — by about 25 million pounds or 12.5 thousand tons a year.

In New Jersey, the communities switching to the cleaner-burning fuel include 15 vehicles in Atlantic County; 70 in Camden; 14 in Fairfield; 20 in Hamilton Township; 17 in Mount Arlington; 25 in Newark; and 14 in Ocean View.

Not only refuse trucks are being converted to natural gas, businesses are switching to the fuel as well. Frito-Lay has converted 200 tractors to run on compressed natural gas at some of its distribution facilities, including in New Jersey. NJ Transit has converted 163 of its buses to run on natural gas, according to state officials.

All but one of the fleets and communities involved in the projects studied by Energy Vision labeled their initiatives a success — environmentally and, in the longer term, financially as fuel cost savings accrued. The lone exception was a carting company in Brooklyn, NY.

The move to natural-gas-fueled vehicles is a reflection of the historically low prices for natural gas, a factor powered by the discovery of large new supplies in the Marcellus Shale.

“We believe that, at present, the key driver for fleet conversions is the rock bottom price of natural gas fuel,’’ said Matt Tomich, a coauthor of the report. “But another very critical driver may be the World Health Organization’s 2012 conclusion that diesel emissions are a ‘known’ carcinogen.’’