Natural gas growing as trucking fuel option

| August 12, 2011

Natural gas is slowly making inroads in trucking as carriers are buying NG-powered trucks and more LNG and CNG fueling stations are opened, executives reported Aug. 11 at a green trucking event presented by Kenworth.

Fleets such as Heckmann and Ryder each have ordered 200 LNG-powered trucks, and C.R. England will take a small, unspecified number of Kenworth trucks to haul syrup for Coca-Cola, said Andy Douglas, Kenworth national sales manager for specialty markets.

“Our customers are asking for these products,” he said at the Paccar Technical Center north of Seattle.

Kenworth recently hosted a meeting where 80 companies including carriers learned more about the truck maker’s lineup of four NG and hybrid truck models. Douglas said many of those companies are seriously interested in updating part of their fleets with the technology. The trucks incorporate either Paccar MX or Westport Innovations engines that burn liquefied or compressed natural gas.

Helping drive the interest in NG is the price of diesel and growing availability of NG fueling locations. NG costs about half diesel’s current price on an equivalent diesel basis and is projected to stay at that price for the foreseeable future, Douglas said. NG also releases about 25 percent fewer emissions when burned. Its attractiveness is enhanced because it can be used with existing diesel engine technology with a few modifications.

Interest in NG trucks is increasing despite a 30 percent to 40 percent higher cost. Most of the additional cost comes from more expensive fuel tanks that in the case of LNG are a tank within a tank to cool the gas, plus an auxiliary tank for diesel that ignites first before igniting the LNG in the engine.

Most of the existing NG fueling stations are in California, where ports and utilities have led the way in adopting NG technology. Recently, a fueling station was opened in Salt Lake City and another is being installed in Las Vegas as part of a network initially to accommodate UPS, which will operate about 90 Kenworth T800s. Other fueling outlets are opening near Houston and in Connecticut, and Chesapeake Energy Corp. recently announced plans to open public LNG and CNG fuel stations “in high-transportation corridors easily accessible by trucks,” Douglas said.

Despite the enthusiasm about increasing orders for NG-fueled trucks, only about 23,000 vehicles, primarily utility and refuse companies, operate in the United States, Douglas said. “It’s a bit ironic that we sit above probably the world’s largest resource of natural gas, but in terms of using it in transportation, we’re way behind the rest of the world,” he said.

Westport has placed about 28,000 of its NG engines with customers globally, although mostly in Canada, the U.S. and Australia. Its technology is in equipment ranging from forklifts to Class 8 trucks. Its engines are in Kenworth trucks and Westport is working with Cummins to develop an engine for heavy-duty applications.

Fleets will lead the way in using NG-powered trucks in the short term, said Kelly Mills, Western sales manager for Westport Fuel Systems Inc. Eventually, owner-operators will get involved when the vehicles enter used truck markets and are more affordable.

Mills, however, explained how drayage owner-operators working at Southern California ports are driving NG trucks. In 2007 when the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports began Clean Truck programs, one port went with an owner-operator model and the other with a motor carrier model with an estimated eight fleets taking part.

“As the [LNG-powered] trucks became available, the fleets could afford to build the financial backing to purchase the trucks,” he said. “They changed their business model to an owner-operator model and leased the trucks on five- to seven-year leases to the owner-operators.”

While OverdriveOnline.com strives to maintain an open forum for reader opinions, it does not welcome comments reflecting racism, vulgarity or spam. Violations of this policy can be grounds for removal of a comment or banning a user from the comments system.