Cheaper fuel, lower emissions, and proven tech continue to drive interest in natural gas
Cold Star Solutions CEO Kelly Hawes points directly at lower fuel bills when making the case for natural gas trucks.
The fleet and grocery wholesaler which serves Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Lower Mainland recently purchased 10 Mack Pinnacle tractors powered by Compressed Natural Gas (CNG). They can be fueled for 30% less than their diesel counterparts. Pretty impressive, particularly since he expected savings closer to 20%. And the benefits do not end there. Customers in residential areas are sending notes of thanks about quieter engines, drivers no longer reek of diesel, and the equipment is attracting attention from tourists who share space on BC Ferries. There are environmental gains, too, including lower Greenhouse Gas emissions.
Fortis BC, which partnered with the fleet to establish the first fast-fill natural gas fueling station on Vancouver Island, even paid 75% of the $60,000 premium on the trucks themselves.
“For a return-to-base fleet, natural gas absolutely makes sense,” Hawes says.
Things are undeniably trickier for those with Gross Vehicle Weights above 80,000 pounds, beyond the pulling power of the Cummins ISX 12G that Cold Star adopted. Cummins Westport and Cummins itself both shelved 15-litre natural gas engines in the past year, even as new fueling stations continued to emerge. Volvo, which had announced plans to launch a 13-litre natural gas engine, turned its focus to Dimethyl Ether (DME) instead.
The lack of big-bore power was clearly on the minds of those who attended the recent Natural Gas Vehicles Canada conference in Toronto. Many speakers openly called for the bigger engines to return. But the market for 15-litre engines simply can’t compare to interest in the 12-litre models that will meet most demands in the U.S.
That has dampened initial interest by some of Canada’s private fleets including FritoLay, whose U.S. counterpart has embraced natural gas, and Labatt Breweries, which runs all its trucks in Texas on the fuel.
“Without that 15-litre engine, we’re kind of shut out right now,” says Mauro Fantin, national transportation manager at Labatt Breweries of Canada, where existing payloads approach 90,000 pounds. Even where Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) trucks have been used between Quebec and a distribution centre in Mississauga, Ontario, the added equipment weights mean the trucks carry one less pallet of beer per trip. The delivery trucks which could be powered by smaller CNG engines only travel about 30,000 miles per year. The fuel savings that emerge wouldn’t offset the added equipment prices.
While FritoLay will have 200 CNG tractors in the U.S. by the end of this year, those wouldn’t meet the needs of the Canadian fleet which hauls loads of potatoes and chips alike, says fleet manager Danny Vettoretti. “We just don’t have low weight lanes that are dedicated in our system,” he says. Besides that, the tractors which pull Long Combination Vehicles are legally required to have higher horsepower. There might be a chance to convert the gasoline engines which power many of the 1,290 trucks used for direct store deliveries, but the diesel versions can’t be converted after the fact.
There are still plenty of private fleets which do just fine with smaller engines. On top of the transit and refuse fleets which have been quick to embrace natural gas, the fuel can be well suited for everything from dump trucks to mixers, pickup-and-delivery applications, and specialty vehicles like street sweepers. “You can be surprised at what you can deploy with the 12-litre product,” said Gordon Exel, president of Cummins Westport, suggesting that fleets look within their operations for the trucks that would be a fit. When under load and at higher speeds, a natural gas engine comes close to matching the fuel economy of a diesel design, but the fuel is undeniably cheaper. Under the right conditions, a truck traveling 100,000 miles per year would save about $18,000 in fuel costs at today’s prices. Even with added maintenance costs such as spark plugs and premium engine oil there is still a solid business case to be made.
That said he is quick to stress the upper weight of 80,000 pounds, and the need to travel 60,000 miles per year. “It can’t do everything,” he says. “We’re not going to get you the ‘Canadian’ weights.”
There are times when Cold Star trucks are close to the upper end of the weight range, but the relatively flat roads around Victoria are easy to handle. Drivers simply need to drop another two gears on Malahat Hill, adding about six minutes to a 90-minute trip. “For a 30% savings,” Hawes says, “I’m OK with that.”
“We found the breaking points on a number of these vehicles,” admits Scott Perry, Ryder Systems’ vice-president of supply management, alternative fuels, and natural gas. “The engine just doesn’t like to be idled.” But the leasing giant discovered the U.S.-based trucks were a perfect fit for local deliveries and Gross Vehicle Weights around 66,000 pounds. They may introduce an extra $850 in maintenance costs per year, but that is less than a penny per mile in the right application. Shorter oil drain intervals can be scheduled so spark plugs are replaced at the same time.
The real question, he says, is whether the fleet has access to a fuel station and maintenance support. Service facilities which want to work on the equipment can require upgrades including air handling systems, methane detectors, and enhanced electrical systems and lighting.
Cold Star experienced a few challenges of its own.
While the fleet committed to buying 380,000 litres of natural gas a year from Fortis BC, it initially ran short of its targets with the 10 trucks. Operations teams were too quick to throw a driver the keys to a diesel-powered truck if a natural gas version was running a few minutes late, Hawes says. He solved that by collecting the keys to the diesel tractors. All anyone had to do was ask for one if the freight really had to move that quickly. Nobody ever did.
Rather than mounting fuel tanks on the back of the cabs, he also had a pair of 45 Diesel Gallon Equivalent (DGE) tanks placed on the frame rails. This extended the tractor wheelbases by two feet, reaching 193 inches. Admittedly he wondered if BC Ferries, which charges rates by the foot, would notice. “They literally measured the first truck,” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The ferry service was even reluctant to transport the trucks at first, until it learned about the technology. For their part, drivers had to be educated that they were not “driving on a bomb”, and learn to shift by tachometer readings rather than listening to engine sounds.
Meanwhile, a natural gas truck can be refuelled in about 15 minutes, effectively matching the time to fuel its diesel counterpart, and each pair of tanks can be refuelled with a single connection. Drivers also only use about half the available fuel on their 350-kilometre trips. Hawes wonders how much further they might get on that tank, but has yet to push the limits. “At some point we’re going to have to bit the bullet and test it, and pay a tow bill if necessary.”
Unique barriers can emerge in any operation. Ira Pearl, the president and COO of Mansfield Energy, admits that some fuel terminals were still banning spark-ignited engines because of rules put in place in the 1970s. “We had to go through extraordinary lengths to document and demonstrate the safety,” he says of his experience with CNG trucks in the U.S.
The biggest barriers of all tend to involve introducing new ideas.
Universal Truck Rental and Leasing has introduced a dual-fuel daycab tractor into its fleet just to introduce customers to the bolt-on system, which offers a 400-kilometre range and more than 20% in fuel savings in return for a $16,000 investment. “There’s the fear of skepticism, there’s the fear of conversion, the fear of risk, and the fear of being the first to jump at dual fuel. The only way to overcome that fear was to put the keys in the companies’ hands and let them drive the truck,” owner Steve Baty said during the recent Surface Transportation Summit. “It’s very anti-climactic. There’s nothing to it. You get into the truck and drive it. Nothing changes. When the natural gas runs out, the truck runs 100% on diesel, and if you’re not watching the fuel switch, it just switches over. It’s just a cheaper form of running your truck. What the natural gas does to diesel is it burns it more efficiently, higher in the combustion chamber, so it burns your engine cleaner, faster, quicker.”
“That yellow pipe delivers fuel for 30 cents a litre. You can’t buy cheaper fuel. It costs you 30 cents to compress it, so you can have onsite fuel for 60 cents,” he said. “We thought by now we’d be beating you off with a stick.”
Even Enbridge Gas Distribution has opted for dual-fuel equipment on its 600 vehicles that run on natural gas, because many run in isolated areas that have limited access to fueling stations. But the resulting savings still add up to $1 million a year. “That’s not chump change,” says vice president Jamie Milner. “It just makes good sense to save money and reduce emissions.”
Indeed, the environmental benefits cannot be overlooked. Transportation accounts for 30% of the energy used in Canada, or about 18 billion litres of diesel last year. Natural gas fleets even compete with electric vehicles if you consider the emissions generated to actually create the electricity upstream, says Cummins Westport’s Exel.
But the deciding factor is always driven by economics, stresses Olivier Sylvestre, director of development for natural gas in transportation at EBI, a waste management business in Montreal that also rents CNG vehicles. His company has the added advantage of actually generating biogas with a landfill site, which supports two public filling stations. “It’s our own energy. It’s renewable. It’s efficient,” he said. And it now diverts 3-4 million litres of diesel per year. “The environmental benefits are just icing on the cake.”
As new fleets continue to emerge, governments are showing their own interest. Union Gas recently hosted visits by two Ontario cabinet ministers at its storage facility. That was the first time this happened, says Dave Simpson, vice-president of in-franchise sales, marketing and customer care.
Financial incentives to purchase the vehicles continue in Quebec and British Columbia. Incentives south of the border include Michigan’s tax incentives, New York has a grant for fuel stations, and Ohio has an emission reduction program. “It’s all around us,” Simpson says. “Promote it. Incent it.”
“I would never have jumped on board so quickly without the incentives,” Hawes admits, noting how the support comforted bankers. But based on his experience, he would still do it without the incentives.
It’s an important observation. “The government can give and the government can take,” Mansfield Energy’s Pearl offers. “The business case better stand on its own.”