With national average prices of diesel and gasoline through the first quarter of this year hovering around $2/gal. and ramped-up output from oil-producing countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia helping hold crude in the $30-$37 per barrel range, it’s a different landscape for alternative fuels today than five—or even two—years ago. There’s no question fleets and trucking companies are seeing less financial incentive to consider a switch. Is this still a discussion worth having?
The short answer, as heard consistently from industry experts and fleets at NTEA’s Green Truck Summit in March and elsewhere, is yes. Yes, there are still bottom-line benefits to realize. And yes, the environmental benefits in terms of lower greenhouse gas and carbon emissions haven’t gone anywhere. Nor has the competitiveness of trucking and freight movement, or the public’s perception of greener companies as a potentially valuable differentiating factor to consider.
But the discussion has become more nuanced, and you need to do some homework to go this route. Fleet managers and other executives have a more difficult business case to make for alternative fuels. Among those who’ve made or are making a switch, some elements are consistently present: knowledge of your business, careful partnership and planning, support from leadership, and long-term commitment.
And on that last note, Stephen Latin- Kasper, NTEA’s director of market data and research, quipped that economists “would be crazy” to make predictions right now on oil prices due to volatility in the market, and few expect them to remain where they are for long. Bob Carrick, natural gas sales manager at Freightliner, summed things up this way: “Control your fuel and you will control your destiny.”
Put that together and perhaps the greatest potential benefit of alt fuels emerges. Fuel is one of the largest costs for fleets, and going with something other than diesel or gasoline can offer stability over the long run instead of a fingers-crossing game with the diminishing commodity of oil.
Alternative power includes liquefied propane gas (LPG), also called propane autogas; hybrid and fully electric powertrains; biodiesel; and natural gas, which comes as compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG), the latter being less common as a vehicle fuel because of more complex containment requirements.
Despite the persistently low cost of diesel and gasoline, Fleet Owner over the last several months alone has charted a variety of fleet moves to alternate fuels. One of the more widely publicized came from New York City’s 28,000-vehicle-strong municipal fleet across more than 50 agencies, which has long been using biodiesel blends successfully and is looking to increase concentrations to reduce diesel use. And the city is looking to expand its around 300 fully electric vehicles (EVs) by eight-fold in the next 10 years, among other initiatives.
On the other side of the country, also concerning EVs—these being step vans built on the Ford F-59 commercial chassis—linen and uniform supply company AmeriPride Services announced it’s moving to convert 20% of its delivery van fleet at its Vernon, CA, facility to all-electric power. Those vehicles have an 80-mi. range with their powertrains, supplied by Motiv Power Systems.
“A number of customers have made the investment in fuel, and they’ve made the investment in infrastructure. They’re ready to move beyond what have been ‘science projects’ at many of their companies to mainstream adoption.”
- Matthew Godlewski, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America
“There’s very little maintenance with them,” Shyam Nagrani, vice president of marketing at Motiv, says of the delivery trucks. Nagrani also claims the EVs can be a favorite among drivers.
“Because we put the batteries in between the frame rails, the center of gravity is now very low. So you’ve got a huge truck that handles like a go-kart,” he quips. “And normally, drivers are in an environment where you have this huge diesel engine. It’s noisy; it’s hot; it vibrates a lot. You don’t have any of that. We had a driver tell us his back doesn’t hurt because he’s not stepping on the brake as much” because of power-regenerative braking, which can help slow the vehicle without a driver having to apply the brakes. At the same time, it also uses the electric motor like a generator to recharge the batteries.
One of the most noticeable uses of alt fuels in heavy-duty trucking has been CNG, often with the Cummins Westport ISX12 G engine that debuted in 2013 and can be spec’d with up to 400 hp. and 1,450 lbs.-ft. of torque. In one instance, FCA Transport, a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobile NV, recently converted the nearly 180 Peterbilt day cabs in its Detroit fleet to CNG running that engine; the trucks primarily haul 53-ft. dry vans loaded to 80,000 lbs. FCA expects 35% lower net fuel costs and 27% fewer CO2 emissions.
Propane is a big part of the sustainability strategy for Nestlé Waters North America, according to Bill Ardis, national fleet manager, and the lower emissions and quieter-running engines LPG offers are important to the company’s customers, image and values. In March, Nestlé added 155 Class 6 LPG-powered delivery trucks built on a Ford F-650 chassis to the 30 LPG trucks it’s been running since 2014. These new trucks took 18 months to develop in partnership with Roush CleanTech and Mickey Truck Bodies, working around space constraints to fit the necessary LPG tanks.
“Overall, at Nestlé globally, the goal is to get rid of diesel fuel,” Ardis says. The trucks needed to have a certain capacity and still not require a commercial driver’s license to drive, “because it’s very difficult to get CDL drivers,” he adds. The company is saving roughly $1/gal. on LPG even against the low cost of diesel fuel, and it is also considering a larger CDL-required variant of its trucks, likely based on Class 7 Ford F-750s.
Special application: auto haulers
For a closer look at how alternative fuels can work in a complex application, Fleet Owner also spoke with West Warwick, RI-headquartered Virginia Transportation Corp. (VTC), which in April held a ribbon-cutting ceremony officially unveiling its 30 new CNG-powered automotive haulers in Talladega, AL. In the company’s overall fleet of about 260 trucks, these are lowered and modified Peterbilt 365 day cabs with Cummins Westport maximum horsepower/torque spec’d ISX12 G engines, Allison 4000 RDS automatics, fuel systems by Mainstay Fuel Technologies, and carrier bodies by Cottrell.
One challenge with outfitting the fleet for CNG was onboard fuel capacity. “As far as the real estate on an auto hauler, we had none to give up,” explains Wendy Ferguson, project manager. The round-trip route each vehicle covers from Lincoln to Talladega is 46.8 mi., and VTC needed to haul some 175 loads a day. The company consulted with The Pete Store—the Peterbilt dealer in this case—which in turn had worked with and brought in Mainstay.
To make the CNG trucks most cost-effective, the goal was to get four round-trips between fill-ups, explains David Benner, executive manager at Mainstay. “We approached it and customized a solution to give them 69 stored diesel gallon equivalents onboard with two dual side-saddle tanks,” he tells Fleet Owner. Peterbilt lowered the cab and chassis on the 365s, and Fontaine Modification reduced the roof height and installed the fuel system and tanks.
The entire process required some three months of weekly or biweekly meetings, Ferguson recalls, but even more so the supportive attitude of Leo Doire, president and CEO of Virginia Transportation. “There were many challenges, but Leo had the vision. He had faith in the team and knew it was going to work,” she says.
The CNG trucks offer the company lower overall fuel and maintenance costs and greenhouse gas and carbon emissions. “This fleet alone will displace over 475,500 gals. of diesel annually, reduce our CO2 emissions and particulate matter associated with diesel exhaust, and help reduce dependence on foreign oil. This is American-produced fuel,” Ferguson emphasizes. “That’s very important to Virginia Transportation.”
Meanwhile, “VTC does not have one driver who’s complaining,” she adds. There was some initial skepticism, notes Steve Bortle, VTC’s maintenance director; after all, the company’s drivers were used to driving high-horsepower diesels with manual transmissions. With the CNG trucks, “our drivers no longer have that pair of gloves that smells like diesel fuel lying on the floor of the cab. Every time a driver fuels a diesel truck, you get a little bit of diesel residue,” he says.
“With CNG, you just don’t get that,” Bortle adds. “These things are clean. Not only that, they’re like driving a large car—they’re just quiet and very comfortable to drive.”
Consider also that alt fuels aren’t merely a discussion of “this fuel vs. that fuel” costs. Technology and the equipment that can accompany an alternative fuel switch can make a real difference in how viable the changeover is. For example, telematics and other truck systems can optimize fuel economy, driver behaviors and more, and today’s advanced automated manual or automatic transmissions can help keep smaller-bore heavy-duty engines like the ISX12 G in the optimal powerband, maximizing their applications and utility.
Equipment can help address concerns about alt fuels, too. The Environmental Defense Fund, which supports fuels like CNG, has raised red flags about potential leakage from natural gas extraction sites and possibly fueling infrastructure becoming a greenhouse gas in itself. Guarding against that, the Virginia Transportation CNG Peterbilts feature a number of gas “sniffers,” audio and visual alarms, and cutoff valves, for instance.
Chris Hanners, product manager for alternative fuels at Worthington Cylinders, suggests that component choice should be a key part of a fleet’s decision-making process with alternative fuels.
In one example, he argues that a Type III CNG tank such as his company offers, which features an aluminum liner and carbon fiber overwrap, “tends to see superior fast-filling efficiency.” Note that CNG tanks can be filled slowly, perhaps overnight, or “fast-filled” similar to tanking up with diesel or gasoline.
But CNG is in gaseous form, and fast-filling generates heat and pressure quickly. “The pressure can only go so high, essentially along with the curve of the heat,” Hanners tells Fleet Owner. Fill pressure shuts off at 3,600 psi, he explains, and no tank will achieve its full capacity, “but the metal Type III tank liner helps conduct the heat outward and maximize your fill vs. some alternative technologies.” That can mean more range, Hanners contends, “or you may not need as many tanks” to achieve a desired total capacity; the non-permeable metal liner also prohibits seepage.
Or, in another example, a toroidal LPG tank—Worthington also offers those—can be added in a switch to propane and take up just the spare tire space in the case of light trucks. Ease and speed of installation is also a factor: Alliance Autogas used a Worthington toroidal tank at the NTEA conference as part of a kit in converting a 2016 Ford F-150 to LPG in a record time of 1:32:25. Alliance notes that other conversions can take up to seven hours.
Industry leaders at that conference noted that all alternative fuels still can offer cost savings even in today’s economic climate—particularly if federal, state and/or local incentives are available, as is the case with a federal tax credit of about $1/gal. of biodiesel that was reinstated at the end of last year. Or they can offer better long-term cost stability, sourcing fuels and energy domestically and helping support U.S. jobs while reducing smog and greenhouse gas and carbon emissions.
Any alternative fuel switch will require up-front investments. In both the near and long term, however, keep in mind that the GHG Phase II proposed rule issued last year by the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency sets stricter greenhouse gas emissions standards for medium- and heavy-duty engines and vehicles. And in support of the United Nation’s Paris Agreement in December 2015 regarding greenhouse gas reductions, more than 150 U.S. companies signed the White House’s American Business Act on Climate Change committing to serious reductions of harmful emissions and increases in sustainable energy use. Alternative fuels will be a necessary part of those regulations and commitments.
An encouraging point came from Matthew Godlewski, president of Natural Gas Vehicles for America, and Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Assn.: Fleets have been blazing trails with alt fuels for years. Supporting infrastructure and equipment knowledge is much stronger now than when others took the plunge.
Speaking on natural gas, for instance, “a number of customers have made the investment in fuel, and they’ve made the investment in infrastructure,” Godlewski says. “They’re ready to move beyond what have been ‘science projects’ at many of their companies to mainstream adoption.”