Technical Assistance Stories: Expertise and Resources Solve In-the-Weeds Challenges (Text Version)

This is a text version of the podcast episode Technical Assistance Stories: Expertise and Resources Solve In-the-Weeds Challenges from Sept. 28, 2023.

MOLLIE PUTZING: Welcome to On The Go, an on road transportation podcast with Clean Cities. In this episode, we're talking to folks from Clean Cities about technical assistance for alternative fuels, advanced vehicles, and emerging transportation technologies. I'm Molly Betzig. And today, my colleague, John Gonzalez, at the National Renewable Energy Lab will be talking about technical assistance with three guests.
John leads the technical assistance effort for the Clean Cities coalition network, connecting transportation stakeholders with objective information and experts to assist with alternative fuels, vehicles, infrastructure, and emerging transportation technologies.
Through these trusted time tested resources, Clean Cities coalitions helped fleets and fuel providers deploy well over a million alternative fuel vehicles and tens of thousands of fueling and charging stations that serve a growing market across the US.
Our guests today are Lori Clark from Dallas-Fort Worth Clean Cities, Rita Ebert from Greater Long Island Clean Cities, and Steve Trowbridge from Drive Clean Colorado. They'll be talking with John about their experiences getting technical assistance on their transportation projects. Let's take a minute to introduce our guests. John.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Hello, Molly. John Gonzales with the National Renewable Energy Lab. Rita, would you please go next?
RITA EBERT: Sure. I'm Rita Ebert from the greater Long Island Clean Cities coalition. I am the program director.
STEVE TROWBRIDGE: Hi, I'm Steve Trowbridge with Drive Clean Colorado. I'm the fleet's and fuels project manager.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Last but not least, Lori Clark.
LORI CLARK: Hi, I'm Laurie Clark. I'm the director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Clean Cities coalition, and we are hosted at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Thanks everyone for joining us today. We are going to talk about some of your technical assistance projects that you've had that you requested of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and really just want to talk about how these projects helped you. How they helped your coalition. How you helped your stakeholders. I think we'll start off with Rita. If you would, Rita, talk a little bit about the program that you had, and some of the challenges that you ran into, and a little bit of that if you don't mind.
RITA EBERT: Thanks, John. What we did was, we had American Recovery Reinvestment Act with the town of Oyster Bay. The town was running into some issues with their CNG garbage trucks that were retrofit. They were running a little hot, and they were melting some of the internal equipment in the engine.
So I reached out to John for help, and they were graciously enough to come out to Oyster Bay. And we resolved the issue by lowering the temperature without having to change the EPA regulated– forgot the word, sorry.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Well, it's OK. It's OK.
RITA EBERT: So without having EPA change the– what is that called, John?
JOHN GONZALEZ: The certification, yeah. The engines were certified to an emission standard. Correct, yeah. And we did not alter that to allow those vehicles to stay on the road.
RITA EBERT: Yes. So as of now today, many years later, the vehicles are still running. Thanks for the help from John and the team. So I'm very happy with it.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Thanks, Rita. We'll turn it over to Lori a little bit. She can talk a little bit about propane. Rita was talking about natural gas and those refuse trucks.
LORI CLARK: Sure. So our situation was interesting. We had a school transportation provider that had been contracted by 13 school districts locally to provide student transport services. And that fleet had made a very big investment in propane school buses. And long story short, that organization was dissolved.
And when they dissolved, they transferred ownership of their assets, including a lot of their propane school buses, to the various districts that they had served. So all of a sudden these school districts are inheriting buses that they didn't choose, and that they didn't necessarily have staff or training to operate.
And had to scramble with just a few months ahead of the school year to figure out how they were going to take ownership of providing student transportation services. So everything from hiring drivers to figuring out routing to how do we operate, maintain, and drive these school buses some of which are propane?
And so we reached out to get some help for them because they really needed some in-depth technical knowledge. And some of these were older conversion systems, propane conversion systems. They needed to understand whether or not their own maintenance technicians needed to be trained, what kind of training that was required, and a whole host of issues.
And as a coalition, we just didn't have the depth of expertise to be able to provide that support. And so I reached out, and John was able to step in. And some of those districts are still operating propane and ordering new propane buses today. So it was very successful.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Thanks, Lori. That's great. We'll get more into some of those issues like we will with Rita, but let's go ahead and turn it over to Steve. Talk a little bit about your experience with natural gas refuge trucks as well. A little different than Rita, but if you would, talk about your experience there.
STEVE TROWBRIDGE: We had a problem that was discovered in a listening session that was unrelated, to some degree, to the subject matter the listening session. But we followed up on it anyway, and just on a hunch. And it turned out to be a unique problem with CNG engines that I guess happens with every CNG engine. It's just more pronounced in this application. We'll get into that later.
But the way TA helped us is that they have extensive connections and resources that I didn't even imagine. They put us in touch with Cummins engine manufacturer. They put us in touch with waste management at the highest levels because they had experienced similar problems. They put us in touch with McNeilus and AMRAP and Autocar. These people have resources that you can't imagine. And they will help you get to the bottom of the problem no matter what it is.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Great, Steve. Thanks. That's an interesting story. We're going to get back to it. Rita, if we could, lets talk a little bit about– in your situation, that was Recovery Act funds. And these happen to be fuel systems that were on these trucks that were from a company that unfortunately had gone out of business.
And that is where some of the trouble started, was, who do we contact? Who do we have in work with to help keep these trucks on the road? And you had a great dealer there in Saiasa Truck that was helping you. But they were limited too, right?
RITA EBERT: That is correct, John. Saiasa Truck is the person that did the retrofit. And they kept replacing the parts, and it was costing a fortune for them. So that's when the town of Oyster Bay contacted me and I was like, oh, I was unaware at first that was happening, and that's when we reached out to you, John. Not only is the company out of business, but we had to figure out what we could do to keep these trucks from overheating, the engine overheating and melting parts. So that's when I had called out to you.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Yeah, we found out a few things. We have a team on the whole back side of Enrow that was able to do some data logging on those refuse trucks and find out more of what was going on. When was it happening? We also found some driver characteristics of those trucks that even the fleet didn't know about. They were running pretty fast. If you remember Rita and some 65 mile an hour zone, we clocked them doing 79.
And we did some reconditioning there, but we also worked with EPA to get a variance, which they had never done one of this size. When we did a little bit of work on that, like you said, we slow them down. We cooled them down by really turning the RPM down and turning the fans on a little bit sooner to help cool the engines down.
We're only able to do that though because we are fortunate to know some of the suppliers that built the fuel system components for that. And we're able to work with them even though the main company was no longer in business. We were able to work with the other suppliers that was able to help us there, which was instrumental.
RITA EBERT: Yes, John, that's correct. And it was very important. It was the whole fleet. It was all 46 vehicles that had to be worked on. And it was very important because they had to pick up trash no matter what. So as the trucks were going down, they were trying to paste them back together and put them out on the road.
Another important fact that– when we had Hurricane Sandy on Long Island, these trucks were able to continue to pick up refuse when fuel was not available. So it was very, very important to keep these vehicles going. So we're happy with it.
JOHN GONZALEZ: And I remember them saying that the last thing you want to do is not pick up the trash in New York. That is a bad day. That is a bad day.
RITA EBERT: That is– that's a very bad day, especially when the town has 20, 30,000 residents in it and they have to pick up trash two or three times a week, sometimes four times a week, if they're included in the recycling. So it was very important to keep these trucks going.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Agreed. Agreed. Hey, Lori, I want to talk about Dallas ISD a little bit. And when they inherited those propane school buses, I remember those initial discussions were, we don't like these things for one. And they were, can we figure out a way to move on from this in our life? But fortunately, you were able to with your coalition to just continue talking them through working with your local suppliers that you've ever been able to move the needle where they're buying new propane school buses.
LORI CLARK: Yes, absolutely. So there were– some of the issues were just understanding the resources available. And with your resistance on how to troubleshoot fuel systems, especially– these are, again, as I mentioned, older propane conversions, clean fuel USA conversions in many cases.
Understanding what was and was not required for their own technicians to be trained, and just keeping that conversation going and – keeping them top of mind every time we receive new resources about propane or learned something different or heard that there was an issue.
Just constantly beating that drum and sending them additional like hey, this may be helpful. Hey, you might be interested in this. Hey, here's a webinar. And helping them get over that learning curve. And they also had some really old infrastructure, and so connecting them with some resources for infrastructure upgrades.
And pump issues and things like that. And yes. Lately, they have been, as part of their new school bus orders, investing in brand new OEM propane school buses, which is great to see that they're continuing to maintain that commitment even while they investigate newer tech– other new technologies that are alternative fuel technologies. They're looking into electric and things like that, but they are not turning back to diesel, which is great.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Yeah, that that's impressive. I remember meeting that fleet manager that was brand new, and he was trying to sift through all that debris really. What I would call debris from that whole absorption of all the districts together like that. And technicians that had had some poor experiences with propane.
And working with them to help them understand about how technology has changed and how the technology is substantially better today than that technology that they have on those buses that was 10, 15 years old. They had some old equipment there. And you just kept working with them, and showing them that, hey, technology changes over time. If you look at your diesel technology, it's gotten better. It's not what it was 20 years ago.
And the same way with those propane buses. I'm impressed that the work you guys did to get them to turn around and start buying and even looking at other technologies as well. Looking at electric buses and saying that diesel is something that is behind them. I'm impressed with the work you guys did there.
LORI CLARK: Thank you. Well, it wasn't just us. Technical assistance helped a lot as coalition stuff and their– we have to cover a lot of different things. And so in some cases, we end up being generalists to a certain degree. And so there are some issues and questions that came up that were really in the weeds that we didn't feel– sometimes you fake it till you make it. This is not one of the times to fake it till you make it, right? When you're trying–
LORI CLARK: –to offer a fleet assistance and trying to help them solve a problem. And so being able to turn to technical assistance and make sure that we're getting accurate, and detailed information that's really going to address their questions was extremely valuable.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Well, we're happy that we're able to help. Happy to be able to help on that. And I admire what you guys did. Thank you for the credits that you're giving us, but it was a team work without a doubt. Same thing with Rita and her group.
And Steve, let's turn it over to you. I mean, we partaked in that listening session together, and you and I both heard that as far as this was a surge issue that they had with these refuse trucks that they did not experience with diesel. And they needed help understanding that. And also, the manufacturer needed some help understanding that too.
Because it is my understanding that these trucks had a fuel system calibration that was new to that given model year. The engine manufacturer had not seen this issue that had been brought up through the city of Longmont. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that came through for from your standpoint?
STEVE TROWBRIDGE: Yeah. It was a problem that the engine surge was something that happens evidently with all CNG engines. It's just more pronounced in this application where refuse trucks are the heaviest duty of all these vocational vehicles. So what it was that the fuel system kept dosing fuel into the intake of the intake manifold. When the load went away, there was still residual fuel that needed to be burned off and thus the surge.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Yeah. And it was really between the folks– the engine manufacturer and the body manufacturer to talk to each other a little bit more and understanding how this worked. Because the situation, as far as it was explained to us, these trash trucks, they would go from stop to stop. They'd run the compact at the same time when they go from one stop to another, and that would change the load on the engine itself.
Then the engine would say it's OK. I'm needing to work harder. I need more fuel to work harder, so it gave it more fuel. But then when that load went away, some of that fuel was still residual and in this case would cause the vehicle to want to– and what they would call surge forward.
What they had to do, was some calibrating to understanding what the load was versus what the full load, and then to maximize the effect of this condition. That is where it is good that we were able to get the engine manufacturer involved to help them work with the folks to make sure the body was talking correctly with the engine to resolve this issue. And through those discussions, we're able to do some work on their end to help minimize that.
Like Steve said, it's not going to all go away just because some of that fuel is in that manifold, it's residual, but there's also more of a synergy between the components– those hydraulic components and the engine to make sure that surge is minimized. Is that how you understand it as well, Steve?
STEVE TROWBRIDGE: Well, there you have it, folks. So very well said. Very cleanly described. And in case anybody is technical and wants more information, the resolution was a recalibration of the electronic control module, the brains of the engine.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Yeah, definitely a partnership there. Definitely a partnership there. And it's like how Rita worked with the town– with Long Island with the town of Oyster Bay there where the town was all in to make sure that these things kept working. They put a lot of effort in there, didn't they, Rita, as far as keeping these trucks on the road?
I remember when we went to visit from that 46, they were down to 33 already having issues with those, and the town was all in to make this happen. Talk about your relationship with the town and how that's helped you with that stakeholder.
RITA EBERT: Yes, it has help to create deal. The town of Oyster Bay has been a member of our coalition for many, many years. And we had this big project putting in a compressed natural gas station and retrofitting 46 trucks. So the town really want to make a statement to go on cleaner transportation, and they were gung ho on this. And they really wanted it to succeed.
So when you have a good stakeholder that's willing to do anything to keep these trucks going, it's strengthens our relationship with the town knowing that I was able to reach out and get the help for them. Sometimes they just feel lost by dealing with the dealers or the manufacturers. And having Clean Cities and the technical response team showed them that it is a wide variety of things that can be brought together and to solve the issues. So it has helped our relationship, a great deal.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Yeah, I felt that. Those folks were really great to work with. And I know they were leaning on you heavy. They needed your help, so I'm glad the work you guys did there. Hey, Lori, with Dallas, I know when we met with them, that first time was one of your first times to meet with them.
You had had some difficulty getting in there. They just weren't open arms to you. But by doing this and working through this and trying to help and helping them solve these issues and also bringing forward solutions moving forward, how has that helped you with that stakeholder and creating a new stakeholder that you've been really trying to get into for a while?
LORI CLARK: Yeah, it was very helpful. As I mentioned, the student transportation had been provided by a third party entity, and so we'd had a really long standing relationship with that transportation provider and really hadn't established relationships with the different school districts that they served because the school districts didn't have their own school bus fleets. And so there was any number of things happening with the dissolving of that transportation provider.
And for the school district for Dallas ISD to have to take on all of these obligations fast and furiously, there was just so much noise coming at them and frankly, a lot of people from the community that were coming at them with a bunch of asks and a lot of requests. And we think you should do this and we think you should do that, and we just tried to keep our messaging very basic. That look, we're here to help whatever solution you want to proceed with.
They had a lot of people trying to pull them very early into a different field direction. And we were like, we are here to help you solve the problems that you need to solve in order to be able to run the operations that you need to run. And trying to stay somewhat neutral in terms of fuel recommendations aside from some gentle nudging that we would really rather you not turn back to diesel, so how do we make you make this work?
That I think helped a lot, and just, as I mentioned, that slow and steady drumbeat just popping up every so often. Even if we hadn't had a lot of conversations, just sending them the email. And then we would see them on webinars or we would see them show up in a meeting. And so we knew that they were listening and that they were getting the information.
And it's really come to fruition this year with some exciting developments and some announcements on some of the plans that they have for where they're going next with their fleet. And this has been several– I should say, this happened– I want to say all of this hit the fans six or seven years ago. So it's taken some time, but it's slow and steady wins the race.
JOHN GONZALEZ: You bet. I remember when we went down there and did the listening session and went to Dallas ISD, and boy, that was before– that was in 2019 or 18. It's been a while. It's been a while. Yeah. But look where it's gone. Look where it's gone. I think that is what folks need to understand more than anything. Is this doesn't just happen overnight.
This work, all the effort that you folks are put in to just continue to show them that you're trusted resource and can help them when something goes wrong. That you're not there to sell them on anything, you're there to help them. You're there to help make their business better what is done in this case, and it's helping you with others as well. Impressive.
Hey, Steve, in the case of these refuse trucks– so this was a city of Longmont, talk a little bit about that natural gas station they have where they're getting people from around the country wanting to know more about it and how special that is and why you guys got involved, but also how that's strengthened your relationship with the city and others from that.
STEVE TROWBRIDGE: Well, this was a– the listening session was about incorporating RNG into a municipal fleet. And it's really fascinating. They have a sewage plant that they built very close to their utilities division. And that's where they operate all their trash trucks, refuse, and whatnot. And so there was just a very good proximity to make everything come together and function in an efficient manner.
And so the RNG is produced from the sewage plant. It's cleaned, it's scrubbed, and made into compressed natural gas. And this fuels their refuse trucks. And that's the system in a nutshell. And also, another complicated part of that was the rins. We spoke about that as well, the financial side of RNG.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Yeah, those are all big pieces, no doubt about it. I think Steve selling himself short here a little bit about the trust that Longmont has put into them as far as the support that they have given. Longmont talks very highly of Drive Clean Colorado. I'm happy with the work you guys have done there and the relationship you've built with the city.
Because they've been a long time CNG user, went away for many years. And you've helped continue to instill that trust that it's a worthwhile project to move forward. And you built a lot of trust there. That's something you're selling yourself short on there, but you've done a good job there.
JOHN GONZALEZ: You bet. Hey, I've been the one asking questions of folks. If you would, just feel free to say what's on your mind. What you think about TA and the value you believe TA has been for you folks? If it has, hopefully, that's the goal. We hope this has been value to you. But if you could, let's just talk about that a little bit with– this is just you speaking. And let's start out with let's start out with Lori.
LORI CLARK: Well, I mean, definitely valuable. I think for us, especially lately, there's so much noise around electrification, and a lot of that is coming from groups that maybe have a bias towards electrification being the one and only solution. And being able to cut through some of the bias and really get it, OK, from a fuel neutral perspective, what is the most feasible, the most successful, the most long term answer for this specific application in this specific fleet in the specific user?
Being able to turn to technical assistance, and know that we're getting that unbiased– the answer that is really with the best interest of the end user in mind has been very valuable, and I think the fleets really respond well to that, to knowing that this is coming from a reputable source that is out to provide assistance and not out to advance one particular solution over the other. So I think that's really helpful. It's helpful for us as staff, and it's helpful for the fleets that we serve.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Great. Thank you. Thank you for that input. Hey, Steve, what are your thoughts?
STEVE TROWBRIDGE: Well, to be able to take– when we're implementing technology that's not tried and true, things happen. Unexpected things happen, and some of the strangest problems occur. These people take the time to scientifically look at it, analyze it, break it down. And they put you in contact with people that can make a difference, the manufacturers at the deepest levels you need to go to. It's really a fantastic resource. It will help you be a better coordinator, and it will help provide goodwill for cleaner burning fuels.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Great. Thanks for those thoughts, Steve. Rita, I'm putting you at the end here, but that means– that means that you're just on the hot seat at the very back. But you definitely not least here.
RITA EBERT: OK. One of the important things about working with technical assistance is, people– we want to spread the word for Clean Cities. We don't want to have a black eye. And when people put their faith in us, we have people to go to when we have issues. This is very, very important. If we had just given the funding available to the town and not been able to work with them after the process– because things do happen, as we've said, we drop the ball on them.
So we have to follow through on all of our projects. And thanks to technical assistance, we could do that. And with any technology, any alternative fuel, it's nice to know that we have back up. So it also helps the coalition, it helps the stakeholder member, and it also helps us with the vehicle dealership. So then they're not stuck holding the load by themselves.
So it is very, very important that it's a big circle. We all like a snowball effect. We all have to help one another, and that also helps the coalitions thrive. And our coalition thrives because we look for the help. We try to finance this. We don't drop the ball when you get the vehicle, we say, OK, see you. We have to follow through to make sure these vehicles are doing the best they can, and if there's an issue, we have to address it.
JOHN GONZALEZ: Great input, Rita. Great input. I want to say thank you to all three of you. We appreciate your time today on this podcast sharing. Those things that have happened with you and your coalitions and you personally as far as how that has impacted you, and how it's helped your stakeholders move forward and keep their projects going. Those are pieces that everybody needs to hear about because that's really what we're all about. From a Clean City standpoint, is helping our stakeholders be successful in their adventures in alternative fuels.
So I want to say thank you for attending today, and we appreciate that. And always remember to reach out to technical service and we can help you hopefully with your issues. If not, we can find folks that can help you with that. Thank you for your time.
RITA EBERT: Thank you, John.
LORI CLARK: Thank you.
MOLLIE PUTZING: Thank you, John. And thanks, again, to Lori, Rita, and Steve for joining us. That's it for this episode of On The Go. As we wrap up, I want to thank the US Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office and our team here at the National Renewable Energy Lab for their support. Also, a big thanks to Brittany Conrad and Vern Slocum our podcast editors. If you want to learn more about Clean Cities and its partnerships to advance affordable, efficient, and clean transportation options to accelerate the development and widespread use of a variety of innovative transportation technologies, visit us at