Speakers: Natural gas offers operational savings

According to speakers during a special live webcast on the future of natural gas in trucking, the domestically available energy source can play a key role in helping fleets reduce fuel costs and vehicle emissions while helping the country to reach its energy independence goals at the same time

According to speakers during a special live webcast on the future of natural gas in trucking, the domestically available energy source can play a key role in helping fleets reduce fuel costs and vehicle emissions while helping the country to reach its energy independence goals at the same time.

John Snell, founder of Risk Management Inc., which provides risk management services and products to energy purchasing programs; consultant Robert Hall, retired from UPS’s Automotive Engineering Group where he led developmental efforts in the areas of natural gas, hybrid and electric vehicles; and Jeff Shefchik, president of Paper Transport, a dry van truckload carrier currently using natural gas-powered trucks in its fleet, were all speakers during the webcast, presented by Truckload Carriers Association and Fleet Owner and sponsored by Clean Energy. While the speakers were careful to acknowledge that natural gas is not right for every fleet - at least not yet - they agreed that it can provide considerable benefits to many.

(The webcast, “Is natural gas right for your fleet?” is now available online for viewing at no charge)

Snell first gave an overview of natural gas production in the U.S. today, noting that the country’s “abundant production” of natural gas is growing at 30%, currently outpacing the 16% growth in consumption by a comfortable margin. He also said that natural gas is “cheap,” currently costing less than even Appalachian coal per ton as an energy source, and running generally below the cost of propane and heating oil, as well.

Although Snell observed that the cost of natural gas may have to rise in the future to sustain production, he noted that, “There are ridiculous discrepancies between natural gas and crude oil. Today the ratio is about 27:1. Historically, it has been about 10:1.”

When it comes to environmental concerns over the production of natural gas, Snell was likewise optimistic. “It has not been a problem before,” he noted. “The production methods are tried and true. They have been in use for several years now. There appears to be a significant safety net around natural gas production.”

Hall focused in on the benefits of natural gas for fleets. He noted that typically, natural gas is a less expensive fuel to purchase, delivers about a 20% improvement in regulated emissions and does not significantly increase maintenance costs. There are also tax credits and grants available to help offset the higher purchase price for natural gas-powered vehicles, he said.

As challenges, Hall listed the current need for more fueling stations and the relatively high cost of building out that infrastructure. He also noted that natural gas vehicles typically cost $25,000 to $75,000 more than similar diesel- or gasoline- powered vehicles and that fleets also pay a penalty in terms of weight and range of operation between fueling stops. Maintenance issues also differ, Hall said, requiring some special training for the technicians who service them.

Among the factors Hall listed as key to the successful deployment of natural gas vehicles are the ability to fuel centrally or to have easy access to fueling stations, OEM support, good maintenance practices and well-trained technicians, and proper and regular cylinder inspections. When it comes to choosing between liquefied natural gas (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG), he noted that the sweet spot for LNG use tends to be in the Class 7-8 range, while CNG is more popular in Class 4-6 vehicles. “Natural gas is safe as a vehicle fuel,” he summarized, noting that it can play a key role in corporate sustainability initiatives.

Shefchik shared his company’s experiences running natural gas trucks in its Green Bay, WI-based fleet. Paper Transport purchased its first two natural gas-powered Freightliners in early 2010, he said. Those first two tractors have each logged about 180,000 miles now, he noted and the company’s seven total natural gas tractors have traveled some 500,000.

According to Shefchik, the trucks have performed well, even with heavy loads, in the relatively flat areas in which they operate. He also noted that drivers like the quiet operation and are proud of the fact that the fuel they use is domestically produced. “Our drivers are hard-working, blue collar Americans who truly buy into the idea of using fuel produced here,” he said.

On the cautionary side, Shefchik noted that oil changes and oil filters are much more important with natural gas trucks and that the fueling stations the company has are currently undersized creating some slowdowns, but those factors did not dampen his general enthusiasm for the natural gas trucks. “If the people you talk to aren’t enthusiastic about [natural gas] then you are talking to the wrong people,” he said.

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