New Rules Fuel Push For Hybrid Big Rigs

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A hydraulic-hybrid UPS delivery truck in Philadelphia. i i

UPS, FedEx and Coca-Cola are among the companies using hybrid trucks in their fleets. Here, a hydraulic-hybrid UPS delivery truck is shown in Philadelphia in 2006. Matt Rourke/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Rourke/AP
A hydraulic-hybrid UPS delivery truck in Philadelphia.

UPS, FedEx and Coca-Cola are among the companies using hybrid trucks in their fleets. Here, a hydraulic-hybrid UPS delivery truck is shown in Philadelphia in 2006.

Matt Rourke/AP

Greg Houston starts his day as a bucket truck operator for DTE, Michigan's biggest utility, by climbing into his big truck and pulling out his clipboard.

First on the agenda is removing gym shoes that were thrown across electric wires at an intersection.

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Houston's truck is a hybrid. The battery helps the heavy vehicle accelerate, and it lifts the bucket so the truck can be turned off during a job instead of idling the whole time — saving lots of gas.

Getting rid of the gym shoes is a routine call. But what's new is that Houston and his partner can accomplish the task with no smelly emissions and less noise.

On Monday, the EPA proposed new rules to make medium and heavy-duty trucks more fuel efficient starting in 2014. One way truck fleets can hit the expected mileage targets is by embracing hybrid technologies.

There are now hybrid versions of everything from big rigs to parcel delivery trucks. But hybrid trucks are still a tiny fraction of the U.S. fleet because most companies still aren't buying a lot of them.

"It is more expensive to buy a hybrid truck," says John Boesel, the CEO of Calstart, a nonprofit dedicated to greening the American truck fleet. He says it can be twice as costly.

Appetite For Fuel

Trucks consume one-fifth of the nation's fuel.

Boesel says replacing just one big rig with a hybrid is the equivalent of replacing eight passenger cars with Prius hybrids. Still, it can take several years to recoup the extra cost.

"But for this industry to go big time we probably need a two- to three-year payback, and that's challenging in this era where the price of oil is relatively low," Boesel says.

Early Adopters

There are some early adopters out there. New York City is buying a few hybrid street sweepers. Some companies like FedEx, UPS and Coca-Cola are buying hybrid trucks in the hundreds.

But very few are doing it with just their own money. Most are using grants from the federal government.

"If they can't afford to do it without government help, what happens when the government help ends?" says Russ Harding, who studies environmental issues at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank. Harding doesn't blame anyone for taking advantage of grants.

"That's all fine and dandy, but when those dollars then are not available, they're going to abandon that technology," Harding says. "If anything, that's going to discourage investment."

But some companies say their commitment to hybrids is here to stay.

Coca-Cola now has 600 hybrid big rigs, comprising 6 percent of its fleet. The company used a mix of state, federal and its own dollars, but says it will keep buying hybrids if the grants go away.

"As an early adopter, we have the cost penalty on the front end," says Bruce Karas, director of sustainability for Coca-Cola. "But in time, as more trucks are produced, as more drivetrains are put together, those cost profiles go down, and you can see the same scenario again and again for wind power, solar, fuel cells — any other type of new technology."

So far, the federal government's role has largely been a carrot. But the stick is coming. The EPA plans to propose new federal rules to improve medium- to heavy-duty truck fuel efficiency. Big-rig trucks would have to make the biggest change — a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy and emissions by 2018.

Correction Oct. 27, 2010

We mistakenly reported that John Boesel, the CEO of Calstart, said that it can be twice as costly for companies to buy a hybrid truck. According to Boesel, most hybrid trucks are 30 percent to 50 percent more expensive than standard trucks. Other sources said that some hybrid trucks are twice as expensive.

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