Future here now with renewable natural gas

A bus powered by natural gas at the Los Angeles International Airport. (Photo: Digital Media Pro, via Shutterstock)

California’s leadership and its commitment to improving air quality has led to the adoption of new clean fuel technologies that have not only dramatically changed the vehicles on our state’s roads but also the air we breathe. I’ve seen first-hand how both the public and private sector have embraced the challenge to put new, clean-fuel vehicles into use.

The push to reach 100 percent renewable energy remains a lofty goal in some areas, but the 100 percent renewable energy future is already here in mass transit with today’s natural gas buses. They are more than 90 percent cleaner than the best diesel engines on the market and when powered by renewable natural gas, can actually reduce GHG emissions and operate cleaner than battery buses plugged into today’s electrical grids.

RNG buses are reliable and much less expensive than battery-powered buses to purchase and maintain.

To put this into context, the recently passed SB 100 only requires electricity to be 60 percent renewable by 2030. Our transit buses already run on 60 percent renewable gas – way ahead of electricity – and will soon approach 100 percent.

Despite the hype from their advocates, current zero-emission technologies are not yet commercially proven in North American transit operations. The Los Angeles Times recently exposed the failures associated with the hundreds of millions spent on battery-powered buses by Los Angeles Metro Transit.

This isn’t just a limited issue. Transit agencies around the country are contending with battery buses that fail to operate in the heat or cold, have unpredictable driving ranges and simply don’t work well enough to provide reliable bus service.

And while there are rightful financial concerns with the failures of battery buses, there are even larger, more practical concerns for riders. Those most impacted by the failure of this technology are poorer, mostly urban communities that rely on public transit and are greatly impacted by pollution and air quality. The families in these communities need reasonable and dependable public transit. They literally can’t afford unreliable transit systems like battery buses that continue to fail in real-world scenarios.

That’s why Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) buses are so important for California’s public transit agencies and clean air future. Not only are RNG buses reliable and much less expensive than battery-powered buses to purchase and maintain, but the GHG and NOx emission reductions that this engine technology and biofuel provide means those living in our cities are breathing cleaner air and living with less pollution.

The ICT regulation is even more troubling when accurate and realistic costs estimates are considered. Currently, CARB’s internal cost estimates for implementation of ICT are substantially lower than most transit industry experts’ estimates.

In fact, the California Transit Association projected that state-wide implementation of ICT could require as much as $6 billion to $10 billion more funding than CARB is estimating! CARB’s cost modeling doesn’t fully account for the cost of electric charging systems and the massive infrastructure costs required to build them.

Requiring all of California’s transit fleets to run on a single vehicle technology with unclear and potentially explosive costs is the absolute wrong approach and sacrifices the promise of reliable and consistent local bus service and cleaner air today in hopes of a technology that may or may not deliver for some time.

The ICT rule ignores an opportunity for cleaner air today by not providing more support for RNG’s proven approach, while simultaneously allowing the continued use of old diesel-engine technologies that are hundreds of times dirtier.

We can all agree that achieving a 100 percent renewable energy future is a wise goal for both our public and our climate’s health. Technology decisions should be made to further that goal, instead of denying and delaying health benefits for the sake of technology mandates. We can have both clean air and a reliable, affordable transit system…we are already well on our way and we don’t need ICT to stop that progress.

Ed’s Note: John Drayton is the former director of Vehicle Technology for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

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