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Archive for October 3rd, 2006

Made-in-B.C. way to power our buses

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Made-in-B.C. way to power our buses

The important bit is at the end

Alicia Milner is executive director of the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance and Mark Kennedy is regional manager of Clean Energy.

So, as you would expect, not much here that is critical of natural gas – or even a mention of the other options.

Natural gas is a far from ideal fuel for buses – or trucks and cars come to that. Conventional fossil fuels have the significant advantage of packing a lot of energy into a very small space. Being liquids they are easy to handle, and they are very nearly ubiquitous. There is a diesel or petrol (I will use that term since it is less confusing than “gas” in this context) pump close to you nearly everywhere there is civilisation.

Natural gas buses cost more than diesel. This price premium ought to be diminished by volume production but so far had not been due to the willingness of some governments to subsidise them. So there is little incentive for manufacturers to cut prices. Some of the kit is a considerable extra cost, notably on board fuel storage (nearly always lightweight tanks on the roof these days) as well as a compressor station at the depot. The last time a contract was entered for Greater Vancouver for CNG buses, BC Gas picked up the additional capital cost by amortising it over the life of the buses and getting it back from an increment to the fuel price.

Nervousness about gas leaks meant that both the depot buildings and the buses themselves got some additional fire proofing and fire suppression equipment. It is doubtful how much of this was actually necessary. CNG is lighter than air, which means in the event of a leak, it disperses very quickly. Leaking diesel fuel or hydraulic fluid are both much more likely to cause a fire, but most buses do not carry detectors or extinguishing systems. This has cost Translink at least one diesel articulated bus that I am aware of.

Using CNG buses would assist the GVRD in meeting its air quality management plan objectives of reducing pollution and promoting cleaner air in the region.

This is a rather large assertion. There are over a million vehicles in the region, but only around 1200 buses. So a small number of replacement buses will not make much of a dent. Heavy duty diesel road vehicles of all types account for around 4% of the on road emissions – buses are not accounted for separately in the GVRD’s emissions inventory. On the grounds that every little helps, I suppose that any contribution is welcome, but no one seems to want to do a cost benefit analysis. Methane (CNG) is a fossil fuel that comes from the same wells that produce petroleum, and has a much higher global warming effect than CO2. It is also much in demand as the feedstock for turning the oil sands into usable fuels.

While low natural gas fuel prices and abundant domestically sourced supply will benefit TransLink operations and customers, there is also a direct economic benefit that CNG buses bring to the province as a whole. Using a homegrown fuel source like natural gas in transit buses brings additional benefits from B.C.’s important natural gas industry — the province’s single largest generator of resource based revenue, that last year alone contributed more than $2 billion dollars to the provincial treasury to pay for health, education and a host of other services for British Columbians. B.C. will also be able to take advantage of federal gas tax agreements, which in turn, will provide the province with gas tax revenues that can be reinvested into services and infrastructure benefiting the entire province.

Gas prices happen to be low at the moment. Don’t bet on them staying that way. A pipeline is going to be built to take NG from Prince Rupert to Alberta, for the oil sands, since local supplies there are expected to be exhausted by 2014. It is a bit odd to be levying taxes on the fuel used by public transit, since it is supported by taxes. It seems to me a bit daft to levy taxes on property in order to pay tax on fuel. Most other countries exempt transit from fuel tax – the accounting is easier for one thing.

Translink is currently running a trial using garishly liveried buses. The trial includes biodiesel, which has been in use in municipal vehicles for some years. Among its advantages are that is a renewable resource, and thus does not add to the GHG burden. It reduces local emissions as well and can be derived from waste products – such as used chip fat. Diesel engines need no adaptation to run of biodiesel, in fact Rudolf Diesel designed the engines to run on vegetable oil in the first place!

CNG buses also have a very dubious record of reliability in this region. I could go on about why that was so, but I will leave the current controlled trials of newer technologies to determine the outcome. However, one result can be guaranteed. When the municipality of Sydney on Vancouver Island converted its fleet of trucks to CNG, fuel consumption was halved. Of course, the CNG was of no use to other vehicles that used diesel or petrol, and the fuel issuing system had also been upgraded. Not that I would dream of suggesting that anyone is diverting Translink’s diesel to their own use. Perish the thought!

UPDATE

6 October 2006 The Vancouver Sun

TransLink will spend $50.2 million to buy 126 new diesel buses, despite fierce lobbying by the compressed natural gas industry.

The buses will be built by Nova Bus of Quebec , and fitted with particulate traps which will reduce emissions over the “1990’s vintage buses being replaced” by 99% PM 90% NOx and 15% ghg. They also represent a cost saving – getting 20% more buses for the same dollars.

Good.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 3, 2006 at 10:07 am