With soaring gas prices and emissions standards set to cut carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases 20% by 2014, alternative fuels are gaining popularity. Major manufacturers of vehicles ranging from garbage trucks to personal vehicles are exploring various technologies.

Diving into the world of alternative fuels can be confusing. Following are examples of fuels that are available, and how they are impacting public works operations.

Compressed natural gas

Waste management and resource recovery company Veolia Environmental Services uses compressed natural gas (CNG) because it’s a domestic alternative energy solution, there’s an abundant supply, it’s cost effective, and it doesn’t damage truck engines.

In addition to owning CNG fleets and fueling stations in Ft. Myers, Fla., Evansville, Ind., and Northbrook, Ill., the company recently launched a CNG fleet in Wisconsin: 13 waste collection trucks that service the greater Madison area. Chad Mark, director of business improvement for Veolia, says public reaction has been positive. “It’s pretty hard to have a community not like it,” he says.

According to Dan Cowher, Veolia’s fleet director, a municipality planning to switch to CNG can expect an initial investment of around $25,000 to $40,000 for each chassis, plus the cost of the filling station. A filling station that accommodates 8 trucks costs about $400,000, a station servicing 35 to 50 costs between $1.2 million and $1.3 million, and one servicing 50 to 85 costs between $1.3 million and $1.5 million.

Veolia owns, operates, and maintains all fueling stations for its CNG fleets. Customers pay for this service. In return, they receive the convenience and operational efficiency of not having drivers waiting around to fuel vehicles. At the end of the day, the driver simply connects the vehicle’s fuel tank to the pump’s Slow Fill connection, and the tank refills overnight.

Liquefied natural gas

Peterbilt Motors Co. manufactures both CNG and liquefied natural gas (LNG) trucks. Whereas CNG is better for short-haul vehicles, LNG is better for long trips, says Landon Sproull, chief engineer for Peterbilt. Liquid is more dense than gas (CNG) and, therefore, more energy can be stored by volume in a given tank.

Although some municipalities and transit systems in California and Arizona are using LNG vehicles, the fuel hasn’t made as much headway in the pubic fleet market as CNG. Sproull speculates that many DOTs and municipalities are not yet using LNG primarily because of fuel distribution. “CNG fueling stations are more readily available within municipalities, so CNG fueling is more convenient,” he says. “We’re seeing LNG stations being built mostly along the Interstate Highway System.”

Propane autogas

Although gas grills typically come to mind when we think of propane, Todd Mouw, vice president of sales and marketing for Roush CleanTech, says propane is readily available, easily adaptable, and easy to carry because it’s in a liquid form.

More than 25 U.S. municipalities are using propane fleets already. Bob Toppen, equipment manager of the King County Fleet Administration in Washington State, says propane was a good choice for his fleet because fitting vehicles with propane tanks doesn’t take up vehicle bed space.

Toppen says drivers usually don’t feel a difference when driving propane- as compared to gas-powered vehicles. There is a slight difference when it comes to fueling, however. Although the process is almost exactly the same as fueling with a gas fuel pump, the nozzle has to be threaded on prior to each fueling session. So even though municipalities have their own fueling stations installed, propane companies take care of the fueling process for the customer.

When asked if he would recommend this technology to other municipalities, Toppen answers “Absolutely.” He warns, however, that green vehicles won’t do you any good if their abilities are lost in the transition. Roush’s Mouw also stresses that picking your fuel system provider is essential: “Do the right homework and pick the right partner who won’t lie to you.”

One factor that’s boosting the popularity of alternative fuels is cost savings. All three fuels are all currently cheaper per gallon than diesel fuel. They also have lower emissions and are manufactured domestically.

With 2014 quickly approaching, Mouw says the time to begin considering alternative fuels is now. “A few years ago no one wanted to be the first to jump into the water, so to speak, but someone had to jump in — and so far they like the temperature.”

Will your fleet be the next to jump?

Kelley Lindsey