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Fuel the debate

09 Oct 2011
Running on electric is one alternative to traditional fuels. Credit: Don Wilson, Port of Seattle

Running on electric is one alternative to traditional fuels. Credit: Don Wilson, Port of Seattle

Opting for alternative fuels might seem a straightforward ‘green’ move but, as Felicity Landon reports, ports need to consider some complex issues

Cost and availability are obvious factors to weigh up when looking into the use of alternative fuels – but there are other challenges too, including how a chosen fuel might interact with the hardware, how long is the shelf life of the fuel, what are the temperature variations where the vehicle or equipment is to operate and, even, what might be the political impact of your choice.

According to a recent report by the American Chemical Society, alligator fat could be the best option for fuelling cars; the oil found in the alligator’s meat and skin is apparently more practical than soya, the usual biofuel source, and the society says that the meat industry sends 15m pounds (lbs) of alligator fat a year to landfill. Presumably the vegetarians among us would have something to say about powering forklifts with such a fuel.

But in less extreme cases, there are also political issues to consider. “Companies have to be careful about using biodiesel, as there has been some backlash about the production of biodiesel, due to crops which were previously being used for food instead being sold for production of biodiesel, because of a better price being available for that use,” says Ross Clarke, head of design and operations, business implementation, at APM Terminals.

“This has drawn criticism for possibly causing food shortages and/or higher costs of staple foods in some countries. Therefore, companies need to exercise due diligence to determine the source of the biomass being used for production of their biodiesel.”

Mr Clarke says alternative (non-diesel) fuels are being used in only one or two of APMT’s 50 terminals. The use of these fuels tends to be driven by the availability of local subsidies, to make the alternative fuel more cost-effective than using conventional diesel, he says.

“Our primary focus is on electrifying as much of the equipment in our terminals as possible, and in this regard terminal tractors are the last and most challenging item of terminal equipment to convert to electric operation.

“We are, of course, focusing on reducing our emissions as part of being a good corporate citizen, but as the emissions produced in our industry are not regulated, there is no ability for us to gain a direct monetary benefit from making investments in emissions reduction technologies – i.e. we cannot trade our emissions reductions with anyone, so our investments have to pay their own way though lower operating costs, and the environmental benefit is a great bonus.”

Frank Oerlemans, export manager Terberg, says cost is indeed the stumbling block for choosing ‘greener’ options. For example, cleaner engines are now officially required under 3B/Tier 4i legislation, but they are quite a lot more expensive. Terberg has in stock a good number of engines produced by its supplier before 3B came into force. “As long as they were produced last year, we are still allowed to use them under 3B. Every customer is buying to get last year’s old engines because they are cheaper. It’s a case of how green they are … until it comes to money!

“Big ports are all looking for cleaner solutions but you also have to ask whether the solution costs you more per container. However, in the end, it will come; fuel will get more expensive and the technology will get less expensive, so that in the end there will be a breakeven point.”

Terberg can deliver its yard tractors with liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas drive; it has researched hybrid and electric vehicles, the technology is available and Terberg could build such tractors, says Mr Oerlemans. “However, intensive market research has shown that potential customers are not prepared to accept higher costs per container move. Hybrid is possible, but still not cost effective.”

If all costs are taken into consideration during the tractor’s lifetime, including the exchange of batteries at the end of their life, the costs per container move are ‘considerably higher’ than with a standard diesel-powered tractor, he says.

Terberg does have tractors running on biofuel; for example, one non-port customer operates two YT models on palm oil. “That is because they are trading in palm oil,” he says. “It only required a small modification to the fuel system.”

Ross Clarke of APMT points to two factors likely contributing to the low use of alternative fuels in the terminals industry. First, local availability of such fuels varies widely from country to country. Secondly, hydrogen is a ‘great fuel’, but it requires a very specialised and expensive infrastructure and special modification to vehicles. “So it will be a long time before the use of hydrogen is widespread anywhere.”

The Port of Seattle in the US earned a ‘Green Fleet’ award for its environmental practices, making it number 20 out of 100 in a nationwide survey of federal, state and local vehicle fleets.

“The push is to be green and do what we can for air quality and less reliance on fossil fuels,” says the port’s compliance and fleet manager, Mary Ann Lobdell.

The costs of making alternative fuel choices, she says, depend on the type of fuel, the equipment and the environment it is used in.

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Biodiesel has to be carefully sourced to avoid a backlash about its production in replacement of traditional food sources Running on electric is one alternative to traditional fuels. Credit: Don Wilson, Port of Seattle

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