Everybody is interested in lowering CO2 emissions and other harmful greenhouse gases, but in the business world the reality is that cleaner technology still comes at a price, and it's a price that is currently too high for the access industry.

This means that while rental companies and end users may be keen to see platforms powered by hybrid engines or fuel cells, they are still too costly for them to be generally adopted.

“If [the technologies] are not offered at a reasonable price, then it is difficult for us to go and invest in it,” says Mike Davis, senior director of engineering at Genie Industries.

Making a similar point about the use of hybrid engines on truck mounted utility lifts is Terry VanConant, marketing and sales support manager for Terex Utilities; “I think that we are probably three to five years out from it being a really justifiable [business case]. I certainly don't think it's here right now.”

That said, it is the utility lift sector where the greatest progress is being made in the use of more efficient hybrid engines, and that is because of the progress made by North American truck specialists – mainly Eaton Corp working with chassis manufacturer International Truck and Engine – in offering production models with hybrid engines. (One UK manufacturer of electric commercial trucks is Tanfield Group's Smith Electric Vehicles, which has just announced plans to start manufacturing in the US – see box story.)

The chassis manufacturers are targeting high volume commercial truck buyers, and not just the access lift manufacturers. But the fact that the technology is now available on their vehicles means that utility lift suppliers such as Altec Industries and Terex Utilities can offer it to their customers.

Hybrid engines

Altec Industries, which has hybrid powered utility lifts in its product range, acknowledges that hybrid trucks are anything from 50 to 100% more expensive that standard trucks, but says the benefits – which include a US Federal tax credit of up to US$12000 – are prompting a growing number of its customers to consider the hybrid option.

Shawn Brougham, Altec's manager for product engineering, says recent road tests on 24 hybrid engine lift trucks made by International, and using Eaton technology, have shown that fuel consumption is reduced, on average, by 28%, although some users reported savings of as much as 54%. “These are not just laboratory results,” points out Mr Brougham.

One US utility user that has tried a hybrid truck is Florida Power & Light. “We tested [the] International hybrid truck for almost a year and it has provided substantial savings in diesel fuel,” said a spokesman for the company, “Plus, the truck's boom can operate on battery power instead of the engine, which results in less fuel consumed, less emissions released into the air and reduced noise in the neighbourhoods where we work.”

The diesel-electric hybrid engine favoured by Altec Industries allows users to operate the lift on batteries alone, with 12 to 20 minutes of operation provided by a single charge, which is equivalent to six or seven up and down trips for the lift platform. The engine starts automatically when the battery is almost empty and takes about 8 minutes to recharge.

The benefits of operating the lift without the engine idling are, savings on fuel, reduction of noise and lessening engine wear. The system also charges the battery when the truck's brakes are used, and the batteries can help to propel the truck, improving fuel economy.

Terex Utilities is also able to offer its lift trucks with a hybrid engine, using the same suppliers as Altex. However, Mr VanConant said the additional costs of the system make it too expensive for general use; “For consumers, the price is still too high,” he tells Access International.

Battery packs

Terex is not relying solely on the Eaton-International technology, however, at the recent ICUEE exhibition in Kentucky it showed a TLM50M utility lift – mounted by Terex dealer Dueco – fitted with a hybrid system, developed by Odyne Corp in the US. This system is a plug-in type hybrid, with a much larger battery pack that is recharged for 8 hours overnight and is capable of operating the lift continuously for up to 8 hours.

Karl Keppeler, senior design engineer at Odyne, tells Access International that the battery pack will power the platform's hydraulic functions as well as power ancillary equipment in the cage or on the ground.

The truck's engine can recharge the battery through regenerative breaking, but the battery pack alone can't drive the truck, unlike the Easton hybrid system. The focus on the Odyne-powered machine is to reduce engine idling – which can consume between 0.8 to 1 gallon of fuel an hour. Odyne says this could cut fuel usage by around 20%.

If the advantage of the Terex-Dueco-Odyne unit is the long battery life, the drawback is the much heavier battery pack, weighing between 5000 and 7000 lbs (2270 – 3180 kg).

Prohibitive costs

Time Manufacturing, meanwhile, says 2008 will see the first Time utility trucks with hybrid power sources. Kent Upton, Time's director of distribution sales, tells AI that if the technology proves sound, and if fuel prices keep going up, then he can see 30 to 40% of the total US utility lift fleet using hybrid power systems within a decade.

If hybrid power is already a reality in the utility lift sector, how long before we start to see this kind of technology used on self-propelled machines? Again, it is the cost of hybrid power systems and fuel cells that are holding back efforts.

Both JLG Industries and Genie Industries are keeping a close watch on how the fuel-efficient, low emission technologies are developing, but are still waiting for prices to come down.

Howard Kaplan, JLG's vice president, product-market development, says fuel cell technology, for example, “is still hampered by availability...we've been waiting since 2000. We thought we'd have seen it by now.” With both the hybrid engines and the fuel cells, it is the take-up by high-volume users such as the automotive market that will drive the price down to a level where aerial manufacturers can market the technology.

Mr Davis at Genie, said that the price of the green technology will have to fall before it becomes a usable option. He gives the example of Genie's use of A.C. drive technology on the Z-40N boom – an innovation for the access industry but using technology that was first applied in significant volumes for industrial forklifts; “When enough demand brings the price down, it becomes usable for us. I can only assume it [green technology] is coming,” says Mr Davis, “We're definitely thinking about it, and paying a lot of close attention to what's going on in regulations and technology.”

Mr Kaplan said that efforts to reduce emissions in the US could well be driven by local initiatives – at mayoral or county government level – as well as by State or Federal regulation. Local measures, for example, could include limiting the density of machines on a worksite or limiting the number of machines working at one time.

He thinks that in addition to green technologies, there is room for a greater diversity of machines to help increase efficiency and reduce emissions. Not all diesel rough terrain models, he says, are used in rough terrain applications, and adds that that there are opportunities to develop large machines without the four wheel drive and oscillating axle options often specified.

He thinks there is the potential to use larger electric machines, and cites JLG's 86 ft Liftlux electric scissor as an example. The company already makes the 60 ft (18.3 m) E600 electric articulated boom (and its sister machine, the M600 version) with a generator set that will recharge the battery.

Cars and commercials first

As with Genie, JLG is interested in using fuel cells. However, Mr Kaplan thinks that an all-electric scissor – without any hydraulic systems – will be on the market before a fuel-cell powered scissor.

So, as far as self-propelled machines are concerned, it remains a case of ‘watch this space'. When you start to see green technology appearing on more cars, on commercial vehicles and industrial forklifts, then you can start looking for it on booms and scissors. Just don't expect it in 2008.

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