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Modern Disposal goes green on garbage; Unveils fuel station that uses natural gas

Garbage trucks across the Buffalo Niagara region are going green.

The latest to join the trend are 15 trucks from Modern Disposal Services, which on Wednesday took the wraps off its new compressed natural gas fueling station at its Lewiston location.

The natural gas-powered Modern trucks will join similar vehicles used by Waste Management, which last fall opened its own compressed natural gas fueling station as part of its efforts to eventually convert 80 percent of its fleet to the alternative fuel.

"It's a clean-burning fuel. It lowers our carbon emissions," said Gary E. Smith, Modern Disposal's chief operating officer. "It's very cost effective."

With help from a $1.25 million subsidy from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority for the new fueling station, Modern is investing $3.9 million of its own money to replace many of its conventional garbage trucks that burn diesel fuel with new ones that run on natural gas.

By the end of the year, Modern Disposal hopes to have 40 natural gas-burning trucks on the road, about a quarter of its Lewiston fleet, Smith said.

Not only are the natural gas-fueled trucks better for the environment, since their greenhouse gas emissions are about 25 percent less than oil-powered vehicles, they also allow companies like Modern Disposal to cash in on the plunging price of natural gas at a time when diesel fuel prices are rising.

"Natural gas is the cleanest-burning alternative transportation fuel available today," said Francis J. Murray Jr., NYSERDA's president and chief executive officer.

But it's the widening gap between the cost of diesel fuel and the price of compressed natural gas that makes the project appealing in the long run, Smith said.

With diesel fuel now averaging $4.21 per gallon in the Buffalo Niagara region -- up 21 percent since the beginning of last year -- compressed natural gas at the equivalent of around $2 a gallon has the potential to yield substantial fuel savings.

With Modern Disposal's fleet averaging a little less than 1,400 miles a day and a typical garbage truck getting only about three to four miles per gallon -- the savings from the more than $2 gap between diesel and CNG prices can add up quickly.

"It's the cost per gallon where you make the economics work," Smith said.

Still, compressed natural gas vehicles, despite their environmental and fuel cost advantages, remain something that makes sense only for businesses that operate large fleets of trucks out of a central location.

That's because it takes a specialized fueling station to fill up the specially equipped natural gas-powered vehicles. Modern Disposal needed the $1.25 million from NYSERDA to make its project viable. Waste Management's fueling station cost $3 million.

Most of Modern Disposal's fueling stations will refuel its vehicles slowly, generally over a six- to eight-hour period overnight. The site will also have a more costly station that can fuel a vehicle in about the time it takes to fill a conventional gasoline tank, Murray said.

Then there are the added vehicle costs. While a conventional garbage truck costs somewhere in the vicinity of $250,000, one that can run on compressed natural gas can cost $30,000 to $50,000 more, Smith said.

Waste Management last fall opened its new fueling station in West Seneca, which is dedicated to its own fleet of CNG trucks. The company is spending $15 million to convert its local fleet of 40 diesel trucks to compressed natural gas -- a process that is expected to be completed this year.

National Fuel Gas Co. also has launched a pilot program to help finance the construction of fueling stations for compressed natural gas vehicles. The company is offering incentives of $10,000 to $200,000 to cover upfront costs that would be repaid through future gas sales to the customer.

In all, there are 106 CNG fueling stations across New York State, including 34 that are open to the public. National Fuel operates a fueling station in West Seneca, and the Waste Management station also has a public fueling site. The Modern Disposal site is private.