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Updating The Big Rigs For A Greener Tomorrow

By: Don Cayo
Vancouver Sun
September 11, 2008

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B.C. truckers who drive anything but the very latest energy-efficient rigs spend about a buck per kilometre for fuel.

This adds up fast. A long-haul truck might travel 200,000 kilometres in a year. And even a local delivery truck, which gets much worse mileage as it stops, starts and idles through its daily rounds, goes 25,000-50,000.

So you would think B.C. truckers would jump at low-cost retrofits that hold out a realistic prospect of cutting fuel consumption by a quarter, or even a third. But you'd be wrong -- the industry is actually quite slow on the uptake.

Why? Paul Landry, CEO of the B.C. Trucking Association, says the financial realities of the industry are so tough that most truckers don't have the resources to plan and invest beyond their most immediate concerns.

Ninety per cent of the province's trucking companies have five trucks or fewer, he said, and 60 per cent have just one. Of necessity, they focus on getting basics like functional tires on their trucks, with nothing left for extras such as light-weight, ultra-efficient tires and rims to shave a little off their fuel consumption.

It's much the same story in the U.S., I learned at a transportation conference in Redmond, Wash., last week. But the Americans have found a low-cost way to address the problem.

Cascade Sierra Solutions is a non-profit that is having success finding and promoting ways to save fuel and reduce emissions from trucks. It operates in Washington, Oregon and California through a network of outreach centres at major truckstops.

CEO Sharon Banks says her agency's bag of tricks is fairly low-tech, and very low-cost.

It includes governors to keep speeds below 100 km/h, and idle controls to ensure the engine isn't left running for long periods. Plug-in heating and cooling options, which cost only a few hundred dollars, mean the rig doesn't have to be left running when it sits still for a long time. Aerodynamic add-ons lessen the drag and cut fuel use sharply.

All in all, a full retrofit package for an older truck costs $10,000-$15,000. And the savings, depending on how the truck is used, add up to thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars a year.

This math makes a retrofit sound like a no-brainer, but Banks says her agency still has three important roles:

The first is education. Individual truckers, even some larger companies, don't know what to do or how much they can save.

The second, especially for independent owners, is low-cost financing. Banks often won't give truckers loans for retrofits, she says, especially when it costs in the neighbourhood of a quarter of the value of an older truck. And so far, virtually all of the 1,500 clients who have taken out loans have made their payments on time, demonstrating how highly they value this access to credit.

Finally, Cascade Sierra helps companies plan and implement fuel-saving programs and get their drivers on board. The range of solutions is considerable. One large firm, for example, was able to squeeze an extra half-mile per gallon for its fleet's performance through a contest that awards a new Harley-Davidson, every fiscal quarter, to the driver with the best fuel economy record.

Landry says he's a fan of Banks's program, and for a year his association has been trying to convince the province to back a similar one here.

Part of his pitch is for rebates on the cost of retrofits. These are justified, he says, as a form of relief from the provincial carbon tax, which hits truckers hard.

I'm not so sure about rebates. Truckers, like everyone else, will not only pay more in carbon tax but also pay less in income and other taxes. And, it seems to me, the economies are such that this doesn't need rebates.

But government involvement is justified, nonetheless.

It will cost a bit to set up and run such a program. And it will need a modest pool of capital -- a few million bucks, repayable over time -- to cover financing.

Given Premier Gordon Campbell's gung-ho resolve to reduce B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions, I can't imagine why this is taking so long to get started.

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