Newsroom

06.03.2013

CSC Network News: Natural Gas Moves Transportation Forward

More organizations are transitioning their fleets to natural gas than ever before. Primarily, the increasing cost of gasoline coupled with the inability to predict the pricing fluctuations for budgetary planning are driving the urgency. Yet with these cost drivers come the pressures on fleet managers to immerse themselves in the options facing them and present recommendations to leadership.

 

So what are all the factors to consider when deciding to switch a fleet to natural gas? How does the organization quantify the value when there are more factors than just fuel savings and conversion costs?

 

When it comes to natural gas, there are several areas to consider:

Why Natural Gas?

How do you choose a vehicle solution partner?

Where will vehicles refuel?

 

Natural Gas 

Natural gas is a domestic energy source with an existing pipeline that probably already runs right to most homes. The natural gas produced in the US could replace 10 billion gallons of gasoline per year within the next 15 years. The same cannot be said for propane which relies on a truck-based delivery system – trucks that ironically operate on gasoline.

 

Battery technologies rely on Lithium that is not available in the US and therefore simply shifts the energy reliance from one foreign country to another.

 

Propane reduces emissions as well. However, it is not as clean as natural gas. Battery-based vehicles score well on reducing emissions, but the power plants operating to produce the electricity required to recharge the batteries is taxing the current grid and therefore increasing pollutants at the origin.

Also, natural gas is affordable. At last review, based on national results, CNG averaged more than $2 less per gasoline gallons equivalent. On top of that, many tax credits exist that could drive costs down further. On the surface, propane also seems an economical choice, however propane is 20-30% less efficient than CNG meaning fleets would need to purchase 20-30% more propane than natural gas to drive the same miles.

 

Choosing a Provider 

There are several things to consider when choosing a natural gas solution provider. Today, there are manufacturers who produce natural gas engines for the heavy-duty market such as textile rental delivery trucks, semi-tractors, buses and waste management to name a few. Within this category, both

CNG (compressed) and LNG (liquefied) options exist, depending on the application.

 

When it comes to “upfits” the evaluation process can be more complex. Upfitters take OEM vehicles and convert them to operate on CNG. When researching upfitters, be sure to ask a LOT of questions.

 

First, can the upfitter service your area? Yes, this seems obvious, but very few companies truly have a presence across the United States. Companies may say they will “send someone out,” but who is going to be on the ground to train new employees? What if you get a new service manager for your fleet? What if there is a problem that requires a technician? You need to know you have reliable service in your area so you can keep your fleet on the road.

 

Next, be sure you ask about warranty. Not only providing warranty for their work and components, but also how the factory warranty on your vehicle is impacted. The right answer is that the manufacturer’s warranty should remain intact. Period.

 

Third, what type of certifications do they have on the vehicles you have? Do the upfits have CARB Certification or just EPA? Does the company have an engineering team dedicated to certifying next year’s models? What about safety certifications? Has the vehicle been crash tested to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards?

 

Related to this, the fourth thing to consider is the fuel system itself. Can you use standard diagnostic tools on the engine post upfit? Is the system straightforward enough for your fleet manager to maintain? The answers should be, “yes.”

 

Refueling Infrastructure 

In the supply and demand economy in which we live, it only takes a short drive around the neighborhood to confirm that CNG and LNG stations are not as ubiquitous as gasoline stations. Thankfully, that is quickly changing and fleets are leading the way.

 

In the case of CNG refueling, several options exist that are financially feasible for most fleets. Companies like Clean Energy Fuels work directly with fleets to determine if a station can be built either on-property or nearby. On-property stations can be public or private access and fast- or slow-fill, depending on the application.

 

In this way, fleets are helping to build out the infrastructure and in return, station and natural gas providers are making refueling headaches disappear. In addition, these companies are responding to increasing demand by building stations across the nation’s highway grid and working proactively with state governors. Clean Energy and its partners envision a not too distant future where it is possible to drive coast-to-coast on natural gas.

 

The Time Is Now 

While natural gas vehicles are not a new invention, there have been significant performance improvements in the last decade. At the same time, the US now has the technology to safely extract the natural gas within its borders to last – according to most estimates – more than 100 years. This availability continues to keep natural gas fuel prices low and with gasoline prices climbing, the savings opportunity is real and immediate.

 

Technology advances are also driving down the cost of natural gas vehicles as well as the cost of building out the refueling infrastructure, making switching to natural gas more attractive than ever.

Travis Elliott, Utilimaster Corporation
Mark Aubry, BAF