Greening Government's Fleet of Big Trucks

Street sweepers, snow plows and fire trucks will soon be cleaner and more fuel efficient under new emissions standards.
by | March 26, 2012

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

Welcome to the inaugural issue of Governing's Sustainability newsletter. Each month, we'll be delving into the latest environmental news and analysis that public managers need to know to meet present needs without compromising the future. The fact is, when it comes to green government, the low-hanging fruit is gone. Bike paths, rooftop gardens and weather-proofing public buildings? Most places have already done it. And while those kinds of projects do have a definite eco-benefit, it's time to look at next steps.

Take fleets, for example. Lots of places have augmented their fleets with hybrid cars for public employees, and many cities have switched to natural gas buses in an effort to reduce emissions. But it's time to dig deeper.

For decades, governments have counted on workhorse diesel trucks to haul gravel, fix bridges, collect garbage, plow snow, sweep streets, fight fires, trim trees and other everyday jobs. But when it comes time to replace these rugged trucks, simple diesel won't do anymore. New federal emissions standards require that governments replace them with greener diesels that clean up the sooty exhaust that used to choke passers-by and contaminate street-level air.

The sticker shock is already hitting public pocketbooks, and the cost, for the foreseeable future, will only climb higher. When Seattle bought two new pumper fire trucks, it paid $541,000 for one that had been sitting unsold on a dealer's lot, and roughly $550,000 for a virtually identical truck. The difference? The second truck met 2010 emission standards. "Those are tough standards to meet, and we're paying the price," says Chris Wiley, Seattle's green fleet manager.

It's more than the upfront cost. The new technologies are a challenge to operate. Newer diesel engines capture and burn up exhaust soot with particulate filters that are prone to clog in city driving, forcing trucks off the road. If emission-treating fluids on Seattle's new pumper truck ever run dry, it would slow to a 25-mile-per-hour crawl. In snowy Rochester, N.Y., Monroe County Fleet Manager Melvin Rose worries that the emission fluids on emergency trucks will freeze solid when temperatures dip below 12 degrees.

A couple of years from now, Monroe County will spend up to $1 million on a mammoth airport crash truck. Rose figures the price will climb another $10,000 to $15,000 in that time -- mainly to pay for improved fuel consumption and greenhouse gas savings that federal highway and environmental regulators mandated last fall.

Big trucks burn 26 percent of the country's fuel and emit 17 percent of the carbon dioxide from transportation. But starting with 2014 models, manufacturers will be equipping 18-wheel freight trucks with high-efficiency diesels, idling controls, smooth-running tires, and streamlined trailers and cabs designed to cut fuel consumption and emissions by roughly 20 percent. Most government trucks will be regulated in a catch-all "vocational" category that's required to improve mileage and curtail greenhouse gases about 10 percent over five years.

The transition will take decades. Diesels can run 20 years or longer, and rural volunteer fire departments are still fighting fires with 40-year-old trucks that are often hand-me-downs from big-city counterparts. But the technology is available to cut truck emissions as much as 50 percent, and economists are suggesting governments levy carbon taxes as an incentive to scrap old diesels more quickly and limit how far trucks are driven. States and localities aren't big fans of those ideas since their budgets would take a double hit. Officials don't have the option of leaving streets unplowed or letting houses burn to the ground.

Even now, Seattle can't afford to pay an extra 38 cents per gallon on clean-burning biodiesel. As a result, they are looking into hybrid trucks, while Monroe County plans to power aerial lift vehicles with the liquid propane that rural residents use for heating homes. In Georgia, Dekalb County is buying 24 trash-hauling trucks with natural gas engines it plans to run on methane captured from its landfill.

But heavy-duty natural gas-run trucks can be $70,000 more than diesels, and there's the $1 million or so cost of installing a refueling station. Bigger natural gas engines are being developed, but fleet managers need to be convinced they'll be durable enough or deliver the power that heavy-duty vehicles rely on. "Our fire chief and assistant chiefs would be very reluctant to try one," says Sam Houghtaling, a Seattle fleet engineer who handles fire truck purchases. "If you show up at a fire and a truck doesn't pump water, you've got a real problem."

Anytime lives and property are at stake, "we don't want to be the proving ground for something," Rose adds. But with cash-strapped budgets and the pressure to meet ever-stricter emissions standards, states and localities may not have a choice.

Some U.S. firefighters now respond to minor incidents in pickup trucks, saving fuel and wear-and-tear on heavy apparatus. In Europe and Asia, where streets are narrow and fuel prices high, public works and fire departments drive lighter, more maneuverable vehicles instead of the behemoths we are used to. "Maybe we can learn some things from them," Chief Mike J. Maltaverne of Rapid City, S.D., says. "We're trying to be more responsible about emissions. We've all got to live here."


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