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June 22, 2016   |   Diesel Technology Forum

Policy Insider

The Hidden Engineering Marvel Behind the Panama Canal

While the Panama Canal and U.S. East Coast ports have experienced investments to process increased trade flows, so too has the prime technology used to move all this freight – diesel.

If all goes to plan, on Sunday, June 26th the enormous Panama Canal expansion project is set to open to global commercial traffic. The completion of new locks on the Panama Canal after almost 10 years of construction will allow larger modern ocean-going vessels to connect U.S. East and Gulf ports with Asian markets and let these ports see more cargo moving through facilities. The new locks will allow ocean-going vessels carrying 15,000 containers to pass through, and some estimates predict that by 2020 about 10 percent of U.S. trade destined to West Coast ports will be diverted out East as a result of the updated Panama Canal. The American Association of Port Authorities estimates that about $155 billion will be invested in expanding and upgrading U.S. East and Gulf Coast port facilities.

As construction crews slowly transformed the landscape of the Panama Canal to make way for a new set of locks, another transformation was occurring in the vehicles and equipment needed to process this freight. Thanks to a decades long investment in clean diesel technology, more freight can be processed putting us on course to meet clean air, climate and energy security goals with clean diesel technology.

While the Panama Canal and U.S. East Coast ports have experienced investments to process increased trade flows, so too has the prime technology used to move all this freight – diesel. From trucks and trains to marine vessels and cargo handling equipment, diesel is the prime technology performing work at seaports around the country. Thanks to more than a decade of investment, manufactures of diesel technology are meeting stringent air quality and fuel savings standards. These clean diesel technologies save fuel for equipment owners, improve air quality for communities near ports and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote energy security for us all.

You Can Learn a Lot From a Truck

The most visible application of diesel technology at work at ports are the many trucks moving freight through marine terminals. Trucks are also the first goods movement application to meet near zero emissions requirements established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Strict near-zero emissions standards for particulate matter were required of trucks manufactured beginning in 2007 and stricter standards for near-zero emissions of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) were required of trucks manufactured in 2010. Today, a diesel engine is found under the hood of the overwhelming majority of these commercial vehicles. Over 98 percent of Class 8 tractors are powered by a diesel engine. Today, almost half of these trucks meet or beat the model year 2007 standard while another 26 percent meet or beat the stricter model year 2010 standard. Nationwide, these trucks have eliminated 7.5 million tons of NOx and 218,000 tons of particulate matter since 2007. 

Technology developed to achieve near-zero NOx emissions also generate fuel savings. Clean diesel trucks on the road since 2010 saved 2.9 billion barrels of oil and eliminated almost 30 million tons of C02 emissions. In fact, a single Class 8 clean diesel tractor on the road for a year can eliminate almost 9 tons of C02 and save almost 875 gallons of fuel relative to previous generation of technology.

Next Up: Equipment

Similar near-zero emissions standards required of commercial vehicles are now required of off-road equipment including locomotives, marine vessels and cargo handling equipment found at work at many ports. Many technologies developed to meet strict emissions standards for commercial vehicles have been developed to meet the strict “Tier 4” emissions requirements for this equipment. Depending on the horsepower range, Tier 4 compliant engines that power this equipment can deliver a reduction in emissions between 85 and 95 percent. Much like trucks, fuel savings capabilities were also developed for Tier 4 technology that saves fuel costs for equipment owners while generating greenhouse gas and energy savings for us all. 

Recognizing Clean Diesel Benefits

Ports around the country have taken notice of the substantial benefits provided by clean diesel. Nowhere is this more telling than in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – the nation’s largest port complex and among the Top 10 largest ports in the world. As of 2012, all 16,000 trucks calling marine terminals in the port complex are required to meet the model year 2007 near-zero emissions standards. Particulate matter emissions from trucks has fallen 97 percent since 2005, thanks in large part to the introduction of clean diesel trucks. Overall port emissions has fallen 87 percent and both ports have achieved their anticipated clean air targets years ahead of schedule.

Other ports around the country have also taken notice of the clean air benefits provided by clean diesel. Thanks to the availability of federal, state and sometimes local port funding, owners older diesel vehicles and equipment have access to incentive funding to upgrade or purchase new near-zero emissions technology. One of the most successful incentive funding programs is the Diesel Emission Reduction Act program that has provided over $158 million in port related activities. The program requires non-federal matching funds to complement federal funding to help replace older equipment including engines that power marine vessels, harbor trucks, locomotives and cargo handling equipment.

As the world celebrates the decade long expansion of the Panama Canal, we should also recognize the engineering marvel that couples clean air and fuel savings benefits in the powertrain that moves global freight – clean diesel.



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Ezra Finkin
Director, Policy

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