Circularity may be a buzzword, but Kevin Roche takes it very seriously. For the CEO of ecomaine, a community-owned nonprofit in southern Maine, circularity is not just about better sortation technology and packaging design. It’s also about electrons.

“We’re kind of the perfect test case [for electric hauling trucks],” Roche told Waste Dive. Today, ecomaine uses a diesel-powered truck to transport ash from its incinerator to its landfill. Soon, Roche plans to begin powering that journey with energy generated onsite.

“It’s only a 2.5-mile trip to the landfill from our waste-to-energy plant, so we don’t have to go very far and every time the driver comes back to the waste-to-energy plant, he can plug in and get fueled up.”

From small nonprofit haulers to large waste and recycling corporations worth billions of dollars, transportation exacts major business and environmental costs, according to the companies interviewed for this story. As more fleet operators set sustainability goals, and bid for business with customers that have their own, vehicle emissions are beginning to attract greater attention.

Electrification could slash the carbon intensity related to industry vehicles, but it won’t get traction until the technology improves, said Garth Schultz, principal at R3 Consulting, which helps communities in the western U.S. with solid waste planning, procurement and negotiation. Many companies agree, instead focusing on compressed natural gas vehicles as an alternative.

Ecomaine plans to pursue its own plans using a grant from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection that will cover 57.5% of the capital investment for investing in electric trucks. Funding comes from the Volkswagen emissions settlement and the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act, which authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to provide grants for replacing diesel engines. Roche is in discussions with manufacturers and plans to purchase two fully electric, Class 8 trucks. Eventually, he’d like to convert ecomaine’s full fleet of five trucks to electric.

“If we can use those same trucks to go out and collect the waste, bring it back to the waste-to-energy plant, use that to generate electricity for those trucks to go back out the next day, I think that there will be much value in that circular system,” said Roche.

Mack’s LR electric model is being tested by New York’s Department of Sanitation and Republic Services |
Credit: Mack Trucks

Early adapters plug in

Truck manufacturers and waste companies evaluating electric refuse vehicles (ERVs) point to factors that help align them with use cases in the waste and recycling sector. The routes are circular and predictable, with lots of stop-and-start driving to charge regenerative braking systems. Quieter vehicles would also be more welcome for overnight and early morning pick-ups than their combustion counterparts.

And for operations that produce electricity onsite – either through waste-to-energy systems like ecomaine’s, landfill gas-to-energy systems or anaerobic digesters (AD) that generate electricity – ERV fueling could be closed loop and very low cost. While the “fuel” would essentially be free, there are costs related to maintaining those energy systems.

Zero Waste Energy Development Company in San Jose, Calif., operates what it claims to be the world’s largest dry AD system. “At peak, we generate 1.1 MW of electricity per hour,” said Osvaldo Cordero, safety and environmental compliance officer. “We sell that back to PG&E today, but you could have a whole fleet of electric trucks feed off that” energy source.

But for the U.S. waste sector, there are plenty of hurdles standing in the way of that vision. While ERVs are becoming more common in China and some E.U. countries, the domestic industry is still nascent and few options exist for companies looking to go electric. Some notable players have announced pilots recently, but still have many questions about performance.

“Battery packs are heavy, so you can only travel with so much gross weight on a truck,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability for Republic Services. That means an electric truck will not be able to carry as much material as one powered by an internal combustion engine. How much less, and what other impacts could result from that lower capacity, are to be determined.

“Those are things we hope to learn more about,” Keller said, referring to a pilot test of Mack Truck’s fully electric LR refuse truck, scheduled to begin this coming spring. The LR’s electric powertrain has two 130-kW motors powered by four lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide batteries. The company declined to share battery capacity.

Republic is one of two high-profile pilot partners for Mack Trucks. The other is the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which will receive the same model soon.

“We are looking forward to putting it through its paces in NYC,” said Belinda Mager, the agency’s director of communications. In addition to capacity limitations, DSNY will also be evaluating how long the trucks can be out in service between charges – especially during winter, when the trucks are needed for auxiliary uses such as plowing snow.

Hills are another (literal) hurdle for ERVs, as inclines deplete batteries more quickly than flat routes. Steep geography is one of the factors putting a truck developed by Chinese battery company BYD to the test in Seattle.

Recology put the truck into service as part of a new collection contract with the city, which is pushing hard toward fleet electrification in an effort to reach its climate goals.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Hans Van Dusen, solid waste contracts manager for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), of the results thus far. “It’s not performing at the same level…in terms of how much material is collected or how long they run” as the renewable natural gas and renewable diesel trucks that comprise the Recology and Waste Management fleets in Seattle, he said. For example, said Van Dusen, “The diesel trucks collect from 800 houses and run for 8 hours. The ERV is collecting I’d say half or two-thirds of that.”

Van Dusen is sanguine about the results, however, acknowledging that electrifying transportation isn’t an overnight process and will come with growing pains.

BYD says five of its first generation ERV trucks are currently operating in cities across the U.S.

“From these early deployments, we collected valuable data, and took feedback from operators to design the Generation 2 trucks that are currently in build,” said BYD Director of Business Development John Gerra in a statement. BYD plans to deliver these upgraded models by year’s end.

GreenWaste of Palo Alto, Calif., has also been testing the first-generation BYD truck. It says using the truck could save around 6,000 gallons of diesel per year and reduce emissions by approxiately 78 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.

Seattle will receive two of the Gen 2 BYD waste hauling trucks soon, according to Bill Emmal, operations manager at Recology in Seattle. Emmal said the models are expected to have better performance with battery capacity of 290 kWh, as compared to the current 190kWh battery pack. And despite that first model’s limitations, Emmal says it performed well.

“The vehicle ride is smooth in handling and turning and what really stands out is how quiet it is while driving. With torque being a benefit of electric motors, the performance from can to can on a residential route is exceptional. The vehicle was also able to reach highway and freeway speeds comfortably,” he said.

In addition to these early results, strong support from the city made the decision to acquire two ERVs easier for Recology. While the company wouldn’t disclose purchase price, SPU will reimburse the company $200,000 per truck for the Gen 2 models within three months of permanent deployment.

BYD, a major player in China, is getting one of its most in-depth tests yet in the Seattle market |
Credit: Recology

The battle between biogas and batteries

Electric trucks may be generating some of the most buzz, but they’ll still have to compete with existing diesel alternatives.

Federal law requires landfill operators to mitigate the climate impact of the methane gas produced inside landfills, adding further incentive to derive value from it. Landfill operators have been sequestering the gas and turning it into either electricity (by powering reciprocating engines or other means) or using it to directly power things like boilers or kilns. A third option is to refine the landfill gas for fueling trucks running on liquid or condensed natural gas.

But according to EPA”s Landfill Methane Outreach Program, only 10% of all landfill gas projects in the U.S. currently use that renewable natural gas (RNG) to power their fleets. Anaerobic digesters also produce biogas that can power fleets, but the application is less common. The lion’s share of landfill gas is still used to generate electricity (though pundits debate the value of that application compared to other low- or no-carbon energy sources).

For waste companies that generate electricity from landfill gas (or from incinerators, such as at ecomaine) and that have not invested heavily in CNG or LNG trucks, the conversion to electric refuse vehicles may be more attractive.

While 60% of Waste Management’s fleet is CNG, Waste Connections is around 11% and GFL Environmental is close to 14%. About 20% of Republic’s is powered by natural gas.

“We think there will be a lot of benefits in electrifying the fleet,” said Republic’s Keller, but he added that simply moving to electric trucks will not necessarily address carbon emissions goals related to transportation. One must also consider the carbon intensity of the electricity used to power the trucks, compared to that of, say, RNG.

According to Keller, some RNG projects have carbon intensity scores as low as negative 372, as compared to a score of 20-50 for landfill gas projects, “so there is a lot of value associated with that.”​

The carbon intensity – that is, the amount of total greenhouse gas emissions of a given activity or process – of charging an ERV is dictated by the carbon intensity of whatever powers the grid. If the electricity is powered by a carbon-intense source such as coal, it could make running an electric fleet a poor choice from an environmental point of view. As Republic and other companies begin to set more specific emissions reduction targets for their operations these factors will become increasingly relevant.

Grid resiliency is another factor to consider, said Richard Battersby, assistant director of public works for the city of Oakland, Calif., and the executive director of the East Bay Clean Cities Coalition.

“Public safety power shut downs or other electricity outages have us looking to backstop grid energy with solar for EV chargers,” he said. “If refuse route trucks are battery electric and there is a power outage, potentially you could lose the ability to operate these vehicles when they are urgently needed.”

Credit: Mack Trucks

What will it take for ERVs to get traction?

As the technology develops, it’s likely there could be more ERV test cases on the roads in coming years, but market domination is still far from imminent.

Scott Barraclough, Mack’s technology product manager, said in a statement he believes the company’s LR electric refuse truck will deliver “the performance needed to tackle the difficult refuse application” and looks forward to the real-world testing to take place with DSNY and Republic Services. But he also said combustion engines will retain a place in heavy-duty truck powertrains “for the foreseeable future.”

Leap-frogging to ERVs might be a faster path to reducing carbon emissions for companies that have not already invested in the infrastructure needed to develop RNG fleets, but they will be among the earliest adopters. R3 Consulting’s Schultz said his clients want to move to electric, but the supply isn’t there.

“Clients keep asking: ‘Can we get an electric vehicle in place?’ But each time we ask private operators, their response is that [the technology is] simply not ready yet,” he said.

More competition among manufacturers may also drive innovation, if they can withstand the headwinds that come with introducing new technology.

Chicago acquired a Class 8 ERV from Motiv Power Systems back in 2014, but the city later sued the manufacturer seeking $1.3 million as a reimbursement for the truck, which it called a lemon. In 2017, Motiv also announced plans to deliver ERVs to Sacramento and Los Angeles.

Motiv settled the case with Chicago in October of this year, and the company has pulled out of the refuse market without delivering any ERVs outside of Chicago, according to a statement from COO Marc Herman.

Alex Helou, assistant director of LA Sanitation, told Waste Dive in a statement that the city is still interested in electrifying its fleet and plans to issue a request for bids for eight Class 6 refuse collection vehicles.

Even as more truck options hit the market, including from other manufacturers, cost will continue to be an important factor. Both Mack and BYD declined to provide costs for their ERVs. Ecomaine’s Roche said he has found ERVs to cost around two to three times the price of conventional diesel trucks.

Gerra said BYD expects that customers will have a two-year payback period when switching to electric, depending on variables such as “fuel costs, utility rates, labor rates, and other capital and operating costs.” He estimated that a fleet spending $10 million a year on fuel and maintenance could save about $8 million per year by switching to electric, especially in areas where local, state and federal incentives are available.

Fewer moving parts and regenerative braking should keep costs for maintenance and consumables – such as new brake pads – notably lower for electric vehicles compared to incumbents, said Keller. Plus, the lifecycle of an electric truck could be considerably longer than the seven to eight years waste and recycling companies currently get out of most trucks.

But, Keller said, “the cost of ownership is unknown at this point, and there is no way to know without years of operating experience. If we make the decision to go fully electric, you’re looking at a transition that will take more than a decade.”

Despite these evolutionary hurdles, public and private sector operators still see a lot of potential. Like ecomaine’s Roche, Oakland’s Battersby shares a vision for how electrification could be a major improvement for industry fleets.

In a scenario with a clean, reliable, low-cost electricity source, he said, “The battery electric refuse truck fuel would be cheaper [than combustion], it could become an energy source for supporting facilities when V2G – or vehicle to grid – technology matures, would have no emissions, and would be super quiet, as well.”