The Future is Cleaner Than You Think

May 13, 2016

By: David Robinson, Creative Director: Birch Studio

If you look, it’s not hard to see pollution on the roads every day. Cars and trucks are huge sources of what’s called mobile pollution. Vehicle exhaust produced 31% of US’s CO2 emissions in 2014.[1] Every day, ozone and particle pollution affect the health and longevity of millions of people in the US, not to mention the world. The closer people live to roads, or the more time they spend on them, the worse they are affected. [2]

The good news is that cleaner and non-polluting transportation technologies exist now. And businesses, municipalities and individuals are all making a difference by switching to them. After returning from ACTexpo [3] last week and telling a handful of friends, I realized that not everyone knows about these so this is a quick run-down of clean-fuel technologies on the road right now.

Most everyone has heard of hybrid vehicles. Those are vehicles (cars, trucks, delivery vans, city buses) that have both a gas/diesel engine and electric motors. The engine and the motor have sweet spots for operational efficiency that complement each other. Where the engine is efficient, the motor isn’t, and vice versa. The hybrid’s value is that it takes advantage of those sweet spots and manages the power output for the most efficient use of energy. For slowing down, hybrids typically include a “regenerative” braking system that captures energy which would have been otherwise lost.

There are tens of thousands of vehicles on the road which run on natural gas and propane. They looks like ordinary vehicles but usually are quieter and less stinky. These include light duty vehicles like pickup trucks, work vans, service vans operated by well-known companies like – among others – DISH Network, UPS and New York City; school buses made by Blue Bird; and heavy-duty vehicles like trash trucks. Natural gas and propane are still fossil fuels, and therefore add to the carbon load, but they burn cleaner than gasoline and diesel so their tail-pipe exhaust is reduced. The fact that the fuels have less carbon in it also has a benefit of making the engines run cleaner and require less maintenance. This is a big step in the right direction.

On the bleeding edge, hydrogen-based vehicles are on the roads now in California. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai all have vehicles in production. California, a state mercifully fixated on reducing its dangerous levels of smog, has invested in a significant network of hydrogen fueling stations. By the end of 2016, they expect to have about 40 hydrogen stations installed. They are focusing first on the two most vehicle-dense areas – Northern and Southern California. [4] Cummins Westport, a dominant player in heavy-duty engines has developed a near-zero emission engine which produces a tiny fraction of emissions compared to typical large engines. [5]

A new and exciting development in fuel production is renewable natural gas. That’s gas taken from decaying matter in landfills, water treatment facilities, animal waste and agricultural plant waste. Essentially, they reform gas by cleaning out carbon dioxide and other items into a high quality, pipeline-quality methane fuel.[6] This fuel has extremely low carbon footprint since it isn’t adding new carbon molecules to the carbon cycle and it is using methane otherwise vented into the atmosphere.

The great news from an economic perspective is that electricity, natural gas and propane all cost significantly less money on a per-mile basis. So the additional cost of the clean fuel vehicle can sometimes be paid back within two years, after which you can have a decade of fuel savings.

If you think any of these technologies might be useful in your operation, feel free to contact me. I’d be very happy to help get you started on a cleaner future. – David Robinson, Birch Studio