Natural Gas Fuels: The Future of Trucking?

With the international struggle over crude oil bringing gas prices to unimaginable heights and diesel fuel hovering around $4 a gallon and holding, the transportation industry is suffering, especially for truckers. Luckily, natural gas fuels are a cheaper and more efficient option on the horizon, although the road to that horizon seems like a long one and there are some obstacles in the way. Many cities across the country, however, have begun the journey by switching some or all of their fleets to natural gas-consuming vehicles. Approximately 63,000 to 65,000 vehicles from light- to medium-duty are currently running on natural gas, including transit buses, garbage trucks and various other light-duty fleet vehicles.

There is an immense and growing gap in the prices between crude oil fuels and natural gas, with natural gas being an exceptionally abundant fossil fuel in North America. In recent years, 80-90% of the natural gas used in the U.S. originated domestically. In addition, the U.S. has a far-reaching natural gas distribution system that makes it exceptionally quick and economical to transfer the fuel to any of the lower 48 states. A quarter of the country's energy use per year is natural gas, a third to residential and commercial heating and cooking, a third to industrial, and a third to electric power production. Currently, only a tenth of 1% of natural gas resources is used for fueling transportation.

This statistic is poised to change, however, as both government and private companies are racing to make a significant switch to natural gas as a fuel source. Most current vehicles running on natural gas are using compressed natural gas (CNG), though the liquefied form (LNG) is beginning to move up as the more attractive option for heavy trucks. CNG is stored in a high-pressure tank, which requires a much higher volume to store the same mass of gas. The advantage of CNG is that it dissipates harmlessly if spilled, as compared to the expensive cleanup and hazard of a gasoline spill. CNG also has a lower cost of production and storage.

In comparison, LNG has a much higher cost of production, as it must be cooled to a temperature of -260 degrees Fahrenheit in order to transform it to liquid state. Consequently, the liquefied gas must be stored in a cryogenic tank. The result, and the advantage of LNG, is that the liquefied form of natural gas occupies 1/600th of the volume of the fuel in gas form. This reduction in volume makes the fuel much easier and more economical to transport, even in areas where natural gas pipelines are not available. The ability to carry a higher volume of LNG in a smaller tank makes the fuel a better option for the trucking industry, especially long-haul trucking.

In order to make the transition to LNG in the transportation sector, many key trucking companies are involved, including Daimler Trucks North America, Detroit Deisel, Kenworth, Mack, Peterbilt and Volvo North America. Mack, for example, introduced natural gas trucks, some of which could use either CNG or LNG, as early as 2009 in response to the need for low emissions and more fuel-efficient vehicles. These companies, among many others, are poised to become forerunners in the switch to natural gas as a fuel alternative.

Energy companies across the country are also working on the research and development of natural gas fuels. Chesapeake Energy, one of the country's top producers of natural gas, has announced plans to spend $1 billion over the next 10 years to bring natural gas into a more accessible position as an alternative fuel. Not only are they planning on boosting their onshore production, but they also hope to make more CNG and LNG fueling stations available so that automakers will have more motivation to produce natural gas-fueled vehicles. In addition, Chesapeake supported the expansion of Clean Energy, a company dedicated to natural gas in the transportation industry, by investing $150 million in financial support. This money, to be dispersed over the course of several years, will help to construct at least 150 LNG fueling stations along the nation's highway system.

The switch to natural gas has also prompted initiatives for policy changes in the country's transportation fueling. California, with its strict low carbon fuel standards and financial incentives for low-emission vehicles, has led the way in this respect, with as many as 24 states following suit and adopting legislation to support the use of natural gas as a vehicle fuel source. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration are accelerating the switch by establishing stricter standards for emissions and fuel consumption for heavy-duty vehicles.

There are, however, obstacles to overcome, and cost is one of the biggest. Newly built LNG tractors can cost between $250,000 to $300,000 more than their diesel counterparts. Although the fuel is less expensive, fuel economy is lower, and the maintenance costs are higher. Also, the pressurized cryogenic fuel tanks needed to store the fuel are a third larger than regular diesel tanks, hiking the weight premium of LNG-fueled vehicles 1,000 to 1,200 more than diesel trucks, which in turn reduces payload to keep in compliance with weight limits on the highway. More than anything, the need for more publicly accessible LNG fueling stations on the highways is critical to switching long-haul fleets to natural gas, and at present, there are too few. Companies are, of course, working to rectify this problem, but the switch may take a long time.

The switch to natural gas fueling for transportation is a major one that may takes years, perhaps decades, to come to full fruition. In the end, though, the time, effort and expense in making this transition may benefit truckers and trucking companies in major ways. If truckers can get out from under the weight of the current oil crisis and transition to lower emissions and more economical vehicles, perhaps they may witness another golden age of trucking.

 

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