Natural Gas in Trucking

In response to rising fuel costs businesses are adapting to the challenges by investing in alternative fuels. These companies are not limited to trucking companies but businesses that utilize a service fleet or manage transport. U.P.S., AT&T, cities, and municipal governments are a small sample of organizations that have branched out to use alternative fuels.

Natural Gas (NG) is a rising trend worldwide and between 2010 and 2016, expected to grow by approximately 9 percent according to Pike Research. A majority of this growth is expected to occur within the United States as companies slowly switch over. AT&T announced in August 2011 that they currently have 3,000 NG vehicles out of 73,500. By 2013 they plan to have 8,000 vehicles on natural gas. U.P.S. currently operates 11 liquefied natural gas (LNG) tractor-trailers and 1,100 compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles. The company fielded additional 245 CNG vehicles to its fleet and will add 48 LNG tractor-trailers throughout the West Coast.

Despite the retrofit costs, the savings in fuel are substantial especially for businesses that require a lot of mileage. For 2012 the EPA assumes an average per gallon cost of $3.63 for gasoline, $3.82 for diesel, and $2.07 for CNG. A cargo van averaging 25,000 miles can save $2,200 for that year alone. Tractor-trailers using LNG can average about $30,000 in fuel saving based on a consumption rate of 20,000 gallons of fuel a year. There are more costs associated with liquefying natural gas so the savings per gallon will be slightly lower than CNG.

Compressed natural gas requires substantially more storage space than conventional fuel to obtain the same driving range. CNG is therefore used for light to medium truck use as well as sedan or passenger vehicles with shorter driving ranges. Liquefied natural gas requires about 70% more space and is a more viable option for tractor-trailers. These are the systems being used by U.P.S. on their 18-wheeled tractors using 450HP diesel engines.

The biggest challenge facing expansion of natural gas use in trucking is the availability of fueling stations. Companies that have adopted alternative fuels have implemented them on known routes where the mileage has slight to no variation. They have also used them where a central fueling station is the logical choice for their fleet. The U.S. Department of Energy does maintain a database of states and their alternative fuel stations and provides maps based on fuel type. This can be an invaluable research tool to determine the viability of CNG vehicles based on particular regions or routes.

Another challenge is the turnover rate of truck drivers in this country. This is why truck driving jobs are still in high demand. A recent study by the American Trucking Association (ATA) reported that by 2014, the shortage of truck drivers would reach 111,000. This statistic continues to be on pace and rising fuel costs was cited as one of the factors for turnovers within the trucking companies. The demanding life of truck driving jobs was another major factor in the study as drivers reported difficulty in balancing work routines and daily life.

Natural gas has a future in the trucking industry. It is an established fuel in other parts of the world and is expected to gain traction within the United States. The cost of importing and processing conventional fuel is predicted to rise but natural gas is domestically abundant and is not subject to import issues as much as petroleum. There are challenges with implementing this rising fuel alternative but early adopters are realizing substantial reductions in fuel costs. It can fuel a company’s future growth.