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Rail At Near-Zero Emissions?

As one of the greenest ports in the world, the Port of Long Beach (POLB) continues to be a leader in green initiatives and projects meant to reduce emissions and protect the environment.

In 2006, in partnership with the Port of Los Angeles, the POLB adopted the Clean Air Action Plan (CAAP), which outlined short-term and long-term emission reduction goals. These goals were meant to help reach ambitious targets of emission reductions statewide. Shortly after the ports adopted CAAP, the Technology Advancement Program (TAP) was introduced.

Ohio-based VeRail Technologies, Inc. will develop and give a demonstration of a near-zero emissions compressed natural gas locomotive in Southern California. To fund the project, the company partnered with the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Southern California Gas Company and Pacific Harbor Line, which will operate the locomotive during the 2018 demonstration. Pictured at a Pacific Harbor Line facility in Long Beach is Heather Tomley, director of environmental planning at the Port of Long Beach. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)

“We recognized at the time that to meet the long-term air emission reduction that we wanted to be able to achieve, we needed to have new cleaner technologies available to do the work using cleaner equipment,” Heather Tomley, director of environmental planning at the Port of Long Beach, said. “We didn’t have all the tools in the toolbox, and we wanted to have a role making sure that those tools got developed.”

Every year, the ports invest $1.5 million each to help fund demonstrations of promising new green technologies that have been developed but require a testing ground to prove their worth. Past TAP investments include truck, terminal equipment, ship and harbor craft projects, many focused on moving away from diesel fuel dependency toward electric or natural gas energy sources.

An advisory committee made up of technical staff from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) works with the ports to determine which projects should be invested in. Often times, one or more of these agencies will also provide funding for projects, as is the case with one of the latest TAP efforts with locomotives.

Ohio-based VeRail Technologies Inc. submitted a proposal for the development and demonstration of a near-zero emissions locomotive. Each port contributed $300,000 to the project, with the EPA and Southern California Gas Company each giving $500,000. VeRail is picking up the bulk of the cost at $3.1 million.

“The locomotive we are proposing basically is of the same horsepower and configuration of the current locomotives used for switching in the ports, which are six-axle, 2,000-horsepower locomotives,” Tom Mack, president and chief technology officer of VeRail, said. “Rather than being powered by a single or multiple diesel engines, it’s actually powered by multiple near-zero emissions natural gas engines. It also makes us capable of running on renewable natural gas, which has an 80% plus carbon reduction.”

The model to be used during the one-year demonstration on the Pacific Harbor Line will have the capability of running as a dual natural gas-diesel locomotive or strictly on compressed natural gas (CNG), according to Mack. He explained that his company wants to show that every multi-engine diesel locomotive that is active in the United States can become more environmentally friendly by replacing one of the three diesel engines onboard with a CNG engine.

According to Mack, the railroad industry has become so comfortable and complacent with diesel fuel that many would still want the comfort of being able to fall back on it while utilizing some CNG. However, with his locomotive’s capability of being able to run solely on CNG, he hopes to demonstrate an opportunity for the industry to move away from diesel fuel indefinitely.

“For rail specifically, it’s been a challenge to find cleaner technologies that work well in the operations, Tomley said. “We see this project as a really good opportunity to test out something that goes much further than anything we’ve seen at this point. It’s been a good process for us to help spur innovation and technologies in this area and also to validate them.”

VeRail’s demonstration is scheduled to begin in 2018, during which it will undergo rigorous emissions testing. The locomotive will be tested before entering service, after 1,500 hours of operation and after 3,000 hours of operation to ensure emission levels remain constant throughout use.

One of the biggest hurdles in developing the green locomotive was putting enough CNG storage onboard, Mack said. He explained that locomotives that are currently in use are refueled every one to two weeks, depending on usage, and it was difficult to get the same longevity from CNG. However, VeRail developed two designs of CNG storage tanks that allow their locomotive to be refueled every seven to 10 days – two weeks under some circumstances – keeping it on the same schedule as standard locomotives. The designs allow for the storage of 900 to 1,200 diesel gallon equivalents of CNG onboard.

Currently, the greenest locomotive on the market is classified as Tier 4 under CARB standards. VeRail’s goal is to set a new standard as a Tier 4 plus locomotive by reducing mono-nitrogen oxides and particulate matter by 70%. This reduction would be 1/65th of the emissions of a Tier 4 locomotive, according to Mack.

“The one problem with some technologies that have been proposed is that they’ll talk about a zero-emissions technology, but you’re talking about a piece of equipment that would cost literally three or four times more than a current project,” Mack said. “We expect it to be no more than 10% more in cost. And we’re looking back at the cost of the Tier 2 or Tier 3 locomotive.”

Mack explained that sometimes near-zero technologies could reduce more emissions than zero-emissions technologies based on the number of units being operated. If a company can replace one diesel locomotive with a zero-emissions model or three diesel locomotives with three near-zero emissions models for the same cost, the greater emission reduction will be with the near-zero option.

“Being good port partners and good, clean citizens that we are, we’re always looking to get as close to zero emissions as possible,” Otis Cliatt, president of Pacific Harbor Line (PHL), said. “Tom Mack has done quite a bit of work. They’ve done their homework. Pacific Harbor Line is very excited to be part of that cutting edge technology once again.”

Cliatt said PHL is optimistic about the outcome of the forthcoming demonstration on its rail line. He explained that PHL has one of the cleanest fleets in North America and looks forward to the continued relationship between PHL, VeRail and the port.

“We think it’s great that the ports are being so proactive,” Mack said. “We applaud the ports for really thinking ahead.”

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