May 27, 2010

Heavy-duty truck emissions regulation is driving north to Canada—really?

by Heather Merry

Hope is here for North America-wide regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for heavy-duty trucking with a U.S. announcement Friday and a Canadian announcement the same day to mirror it.

On May 21, with major truck association and manufacturer leaders by his side, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about that day’s Presidential Memorandum, addressing “a transformation of our Nation’s fleet of cars and trucks” that the industry of alternative fuel and transportation technologies has been waiting to hear for a while. We couldn’t agree more. As Obama’s memorandum itself states, “medium- and heavy-duty trucks and buses continue to be a major source of fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas pollution.”

The whole announcement is full of promise that industry and environmental groups alike hope will bring real improvements to the transportation pollution problem in North America through regulation. After citing the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama states, “even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies.”

And after Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice made an announcement the same day that Canada will look to harmonize heavy-duty truck emissions regulations with the U.S., greatly assisting manufacturers and fleets operating in both jurisdictions, we have cause for cheer. Cheer, at least, that governments are addressing emissions from the heavy-duty sector and its current ugly 23% of North America’s GHG emissions from transportation. And according to the Conference Board of Canada, virtually all of the increase in GHG emissions from transportation has come from freight transport due mainly to corporations integrating their North American operations in the last two and a half decades and therefore using more large trucks carrying more freight over longer distances.

While it seems I cannot quote Obama enough today thanks to these nuggets of promise above, I question the severity of the regulations to come. Will they really dictate low GHG emissions standards bringing major reductions, or are the Globe and Mail and others’ predictions of aerodynamic hood clips and fancy tires correct? I can applaud the use of aerodynamics to improve GHG emissions where they are not already in use (which, incidentally, they should be), but is this baby step, the ONLY step our two advanced nations are going to take? I hope not. To make a difference, the regulation must effect a change to lower-carbon fuels, not just vehicle/fuel efficiency. A combination of incumbent fuel technologies and alternative lower-carbon fuel solutions can achieve the fastest carbon (GHG) reduction at the lowest cost using available technology.

I’m hopeful that both the U.S. and Canadian governments will make sizeable changes to emissions standards, but will await their actions before commenting. Details of the standards that will be imposed are not yet available, and I concede that mandating better vehicle or fuel efficiency is at least a start if we are to reduce GHG emissions by 17% by 2020 as both countries are targeting. Let’s just hope they are more aggressive and present truly lower GHG emissions standards, achievable now by switching to natural gas technologies already powering trucks in the market today such as Westport HD and Cummins Westport engines.

And Westport is looking forward, as surely all auto and truck manufacturers are, to a harmonized system of emissions regulations not only throughout the U.S., but across the northern border to Canada too. Operators need support and incentive to move on this, and having one standard to adhere to makes it that much easier.

Yes, hope is indeed here, but I guess we must wait until the fall, and then next year for the real numbers to gauge the environmental progress these two nations are actually going to make with this.

May 7, 2010

Biomethane: A Green, Renewable Fuel for Heavy-Duty Vehicles

by Karen Hamberg

Transport accounts for nearly one-quarter of global energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions. To achieve the necessary deep cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, transport must play a significant role. Current best-available and emerging vehicle technologies have the potential to deliver substantial reductions in CO2 emissions but they need to be introduced rapidly, at a rate and on a scale that is unprecedented in the last 40 years of the transport evolution.[1]  The transition to low-carbon alternatives will not be straightforward or unchallenged.[2]

The reduction of GHG emissions from the transport sector will require: i) alternative fuels that enable vehicles to emit less CO2 per unit of energy used through the use of less carbon-intensive energy sources, ii) efficiency improvements from new technologies and operational improvements for truck transport management that reduce the energy use of vehicles and, iii) modal shifts in urban short-distance travel and long-distance travel.[3]

Biomethane or renewable natural gas has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of transportation and generate a range of economic, environmental and energy security benefits. In comparison to other low-carbon forms of transportation such as electric vehicles or hybrids, biomethane is suitable for heavy-duty transport applications using the Cummins Westport ISL G or Westport GX engines and delivers greater lifecycle GHG emission reduction than other biofuels. 

Biomethane can be produced from a variety of biomass and biogas sources including landfill gas, waste water treatment plants and other municipal, agricultural and forestry waste streams. Biogas is produced by the anaerobic digestion of biomass using purpose-built anaerobic digesters or via the process of thermal gasification. Biogas contains approximately 15–45% carbon dioxide (CO2), 50–80% methane (CH4) and impurities. It must be purified to pipeline quality standards; a minimum of 96% of methane before it can be used as a direct substitute for natural gas in natural gas fuelled vehicles.

Economics play a key role in what transport technologies and fuels are adopted and how biomass is used. Numerous studies have shown that biomethane costs compare favourably to diesel but the recent drop and stagnation in natural gas prices has changed the competitive landscape. Anaerobic digesters, biogas upgrading facilities and liquefaction are capital intensive processes and many biomethane business cases have been negatively impacted by inexpensive natural gas. With the discovery of natural gas shale plays and new horizontal drilling and fracturing technologies, North America has an abundant, long-term supply of affordable natural gas.

However, a new economic model is emerging where natural gas suppliers and utilities are looking to increase demand via new markets and add renewable content. Transportation provides an opportunity to increase demand and biomethane allows utilities to add renewable content, making natural gas an even greener energy source. This model is similar to electrical utilities adding alternative or renewable energy to the grid or fuel providers offering biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel blends. A recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report notes that 25% of global agricultural and forestry residues could produce enough biomethane to meet 14.9% of current transportation fuel demand.[4]

There are currently strong incentives for the increased use of renewable fuels in the transport sector worldwide. Some first-generation ethanol and biodiesel production routes have limitations with regard to resource efficiency and the reduction of greenhouse gases.[5]  A transition is needed to much more sustainable feedstocks and approaches to biofuels production to ensure there is no competition with food/feed supplies and poor performance in terms of GHG cost-per-tonne or land-use efficiency.[6]  Biomethane is a renewable energy source and presents an opportunity to turn abundant, marginal and zero-value waste products into useful fuel.

The transport sector is almost fully dependent on petroleum-derived fuels and finding alternatives remains a challenge. Deploying next generation technologies at the scale required will take time once they become commercially available.[7]  Biomethane holds an advantage over liquid biofuels as the refining and distribution processes are established, the fuelling infrastructure is expanding and natural gas fuelled vehicles are currently available from more than 50 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).  Compared to the majority of liquid biofuels in use today, biomethane often has a far better performance with regard to both land-use efficiency and life-cycle emissions thereby positioning biomethane as a strong candidate for becoming one of the most sustainable vehicle fuels in the near future.[8]

  1. International Energy Agency (2009) “Transport, Energy and CO2: Moving Towards Sustainability” IEA/OECD, 2009
  2. Sperling, Daniel and James S. Cannon eds. (2009) “Reducing Climate Impacts in the Transportation Sector” Springer Science and Business Media 2009 pp.7
  3. International Energy Agency (2009) “Transport, Energy and CO2: Moving Towards Sustainability” IEA/OECD, 2009
  4. IEA (2010) “Sustainable Production of Second Generation Biofuels”. Available at
  5. Borjesson, Pal and B. Mattiasson (2007) “Biogas as a Resource Efficient Vehicle Fuel”. Lund University, 2007. Available at
  6. International Energy Agency (2009) “Transport, Energy and CO2: Moving Towards Sustainability” IEA/OECD, 2009
  7. World Resources Institute (2008) “Plants at the Pump: Reviewing Biofuels’ Impacts and Policy Recommendations”. Available at
  8. Borjesson, Pal and B. Mattiasson (2007) “Biogas as a Resource Efficient Vehicle Fuel”. Lund University, 2007. Available at