Not too many years ago, the range of choices for commercial and industrial fleet vehicles powered by natural gas was narrow. Using natural gas as a transportation fuel would require conversion of existing fleet
vehicles by a small number of niche conversion specialists. That situation is rapidly changing, with a growing range of OEM natural gas-fueled vehicles or standardized conversion packages.
Further, the options for vehicle refueling continue to expand. The near future promises even further broadening of NG fleet fueling options. Natural gas is growing in applications both as liquid natural gas (LNG) which is usually used for over-the-road tractors, and compressed natural gas (CNG), which is used in local-use heavy duty trucks, and in medium-and light-duty vehicles.
Growth Rate Picking Up
In terms of number of natural gas-powered vehicles, North America has lagged far behind many other areas, including Western Europe, South America and East Asia. However the perception of slow development may not represent reality. Sean Turner is Chief Operating Officer for Gladstein, Neandross & Associates, a leading consulting firm specializing in market development for low emission and alternative fuel vehicle technologies, infrastructure, and fuels.
He explains that the number of vehicles alone is not the only index of NG adoption. “While North America might lag behind the adoption curve of some other countries in terms of numbers of vehicles, natural gas usage per vehicle in North America is near the top worldwide. This is because other countries have tended to implement NGVs in light-duty applications, where North America has concentrated more on heavy-duty vehicles that use more fuel than their light-duty brethren.”
Turner adds, “Another issue is that until recently there has not been a large group of OEM natural gas vehicles available in the U.S. This has been the situation for a variety of technological, regulatory and economic reasons. The growing supply of natural gas in North America in the past decade has dramatically changed the economics of using natural gas for transportation. For that reason, we are seeing North America moving up the adoption curve now.”
Expanding Beyond Buses and Refuse Trucks
Turner points out that the use of NG for fleet fueling is now also becoming more diversified. The first widespread use was for transit vehicles and refuse trucks. He notes, “A recent trend in NG fueling is toward over-the-road Class-8 tractors. This has become particularly apparent in the regional goods movement sector, where we are seeing a large influx of traditional shippers (Procter & Gamble, Lowes, Owen Corning, and others) moving to shipments via NG tractors.”
He also indicates that new engine and power train products are expanding the potential usefulness of NG fueling for heavy-duty vehicles. “The most significant introduction of the past year was the Cummins-Westport ISX12-G heavy-duty engine. Until now the industry had been somewhat limited in heavier-duty applications because the only heavy-duty engine available was the Cummins-Westport ISL-G engine, which had a recommended gross vehicle weight of 66,000 lbs. The ISX12 engine now allows fleet operators to use natural gas to haul loads all the way up to the normal road limit of 80,000 lbs.”
Turner adds that Cummins-Westport has also recently announced a development program for its ISB6.7G engine for medium-duty trucks, shuttle vehicles and vocational vehicles. This project is on a 2016 commercialization timeframe.
Multiple Benefits of NG Fueling
The most prominent benefit of natural gas fueling for fleets is reduced fuel cost. While prices vary, most users are seeing reductions of 40% to 60% in vehicle fuel costs, and these savings are projected to continue far into the future. Because natural gas is a fuel primarily produced in North America, it is less subject to price fluctuations caused by international economic or political instability.
Maintenance is often reduced because of the clean-burning characteristic of natural gas. Heavy vehicles using natural gas to replace diesel fuel are as much as10 decibels quieter, and generate fewer complaints about noise, odors or smoke. Increasingly rigorous emission standards for diesel engines will likely make fuel costs higher and maintenance requirements more strenuous for conventional diesel engines. Owners, drivers and the general public appreciate the fact that natural gas engines use a North American fuel, not an imported product.
Fueling Points Dramatically Increasing
For these reasons, Turner and others look for continuing dramatic increases in the number of fleet vehicles in all sizes moving toward natural gas. This will be accompanied by increases in the numbers of both public and private natural gas fueling stations. To be sure, the development of fueling sites has been uneven. States like California, Oklahoma and Utah already have strong and growing networks of public-access sites. Others lag behind, but new installations are opening every month in many other states.
Nationwide, there are about 1,300 private and public-access CNG and LNG fueling stations, with an expected rate of increase of up to 20% annually for some time into the future. Natural gas fueling is not yet available everywhere, but we’re seeing progress. If your fleet operates out of a fixed location, and especially if vehicles are garaged overnight, a private timed-fill system may be the best choice, and you need not wait for local public-access development.
Building a Network
The largest operator of public access fueling stations is Clean Energy, with over 500 stations operating in the U.S. and Canada. Clean Energy offers operators of light, medium, and heavy-duty natural gas vehicle fleets help with fuel supply services, long-term fuel contracts, fuel station design and fueling operations, plus assistance with securing grant funding and vehicle leasing.
An example of a company that has made a significant commitment to using natural gas fueling is UPS. The worldwide package delivery company recently announced that it will add 700 LNG-powered road tractors for inter-city shipping. The company is also adding four new LNG fueling points in its network. The company indicates they are currently operating LNG road tractors in ten states, with plans to expand in the future.
The company works with the DOE’s Clean Cities Program, and is active in development and promotion of the LNG Corridor stretching from California through Utah. In addition, the company operates over 1,000 CNG powered package delivery vehicles in the U.S., and thousands more worldwide. Among the benefits the company claims for the LNG and CNG-powered vehicles is lower fuel cost, lower overall emissions, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Manufacturers Taking Notice
According to the trade organization NGVAmerica, factory-built natural gas truck options are available from the major refuse truck chassis manufacturers, most of the transit and shuttle bus builders, two of the top three school bus builders, all major street-sweeper manufacturers, and leading road tractor builders Freightliner, Peterbilt and Kenworth. Other manufacturers have indicated interest or have active factory retrofit programs started. These manufacturers have sensed the momentum in North America toward fleet vehicle natural gas fueling, and are investing significant dollars in engine development and certification to expand their natural gas options.
Maybe It’s Your Time
Is the time right for you to adopt natural gas as the primary fuel for new fleet vehicles? Very possibly. If you are operating a fleet that puts in significant miles annually, and if you can refuel overnight at your location, or if you can use a nearby quick-fill public station, it’s time to begin looking. Natural gas fueling is expanding opportunities for owners throughout North America. It’s out there!