A Publication of WTVP

PDC’s conversion to a safer, cleaner fuel has cut costs and reduced volatility.

A CityLink bus pass means money in Steve Julien’s pocket at the end of the month. During warm weather, Julien dutifully rides public transportation from his home in Marquette Heights to his job in Peoria. He has been taking the bus regularly since 2005, when the price of gasoline eclipsed $2.55 a gallon. A business analyst with a 6 Sigma Master Black Belt designation at PDC, Julien developed a car-versus-bus energy formula to validate his commute of choice.

“The threshold is $2.55 a gallon,” says Julien. “When the cost at the pump is higher, it’s cheaper to buy a $40 bus pass for the month. I only need to ride the bus five times in a 30-day period and it’s paid for. All bus rides after those are, in essence, free trips to work. Right now, if I take my car, it costs me $280 at the pump per month.”

The soft-spoken Julien used the same basic premise in spearheading a project to switch PDC’s garbage fleet from diesel-powered trucks to natural gas. It was a task delegated to him by PDC President Royal Coulter.

“The long-term prognosis for petroleum is terrible,” Coulter explains. “Domestic petroleum production has risen modestly since 2010, but diesel prices are increasingly unstable. I saw other haulers in the trucking industry starting to use natural gas as an alternate fuel. It made sense for us to look at it as well.”

From Peat to Fuel

The facts favored the changeover to natural gas even before PDC’s research began. The long-term forecast for natural gas is strong. Domestic discovery and production jumped significantly in 2011, while U.S. domestic prices for natural gas have reached historic lows—and the price is stable.

Millions of years ago, plants, trees and tiny sea creatures died and sank to the bottom of the sea. Over time, rock formations and pressure turned these organic matters into peat. As years passed, heat from the earth changed this peat into petroleum or natural gas. Eventually, scientists realized there were vast resources of natural gas trapped below the ground waiting to be tapped. Most natural gas reserves are 6,000 feet down. The U.S. produces a quarter of the earth’s natural gas, making it truly an American fuel.

Once the natural gas is extracted, cleaned and delivered through pipelines, it can be burned for fuel. However, its use in a vehicle was problematic before advances in storage were made. Natural gas can now be compressed into a smaller space, and PDC became a designated supplier after investing in equipment to compress the fuel. The process literally squeezes the natural gas to less than one percent of the volume it occupies at standard atmospheric pressure. It is stored and distributed in hard, carbon fiber-reinforced containers at a pressure of 2,900 to 3,600 psi. These storage containers are usually cylindrical or spherical, located behind the cab or on top of a standard garbage truck.

Internal combustion, which burns petroleum, produces greenhouse gases, but natural gas burns clean and does not. Natural gas is also safer than other fuels. In the event of a spill, it is lighter than air, dispersing quickly when released.

A Fleet Refueled

A dozen of PDC’s garbage trucks started running on compressed natural gas (CNG) in January. Since then, diesel prices have fluctuated between $3.37 and $4.02 a gallon. With the price for natural gas set contractually at $2.60 a gallon, PDC’s shift to CNG has removed volatility from the fuel-cost equation. And the dramatic price difference equals real savings.

“Since the changeover to CNG, we are buying the equivalent of one less tanker truck of diesel fuel a month,” says Julien with a grin. “That’s 7,500 gallons of diesel fuel saved every 30 days.”

As part of the fuel changeover, PDC teamed with Clean Energy Fuels Corporation to build a compressed natural gas commercial fueling station at 1113 N. Swords Avenue in Peoria. The CNG station is the only one between Chicago and St. Louis. “Our CNG station has two local customers and several commercial customers routinely using the facility,” Julien says.

Fueling the Future

In addition to using less fossil fuel with CNG, PDC is consuming less landfill space by encouraging recycling. Since taking over the City of Peoria garbage service in 2010, recycling participation has tripled.

“When we started, there were about 3,000 households in Peoria recycling,” said Matt Coulter, vice president of sales and marketing. “Today, we have more than 9,000 families enrolled in our single-stream recycling program.”

In an average month, PDC hauls 184 tons of recyclable material from households to a recycling processor instead of burying it in the Peoria City/County Landfill. Since garbage produces methane, or natural gas, as it decays, Julien predicts that someday it will be economically feasible to mine landfill gas at the local level.

“The natural gas produced from one landfill would be enough to power 250 garbage trucks a day—and there would be plenty left over to share with others,” he says.

The concept of mining natural gas from landfills to power garbage trucks may still be years away in central Illinois, but it gives Julien a new formula to ponder as he rides the bus to work. iBi