Only time will tell
As industry explores LNG, when will LNG be ready for the industry?
I recently visited the Paccar Technical Center in Mount Vernon, Wash., where Kenworth hosted a weeklong event to showcase their alternative-fuel vehicles for customers and press. The model on hand most applicable to regional and line-haul operations was a T800 day cab tractor equipped with a Westport GX15 liquefied natural gas engine, which is based on the Cummins ISX15 and reconfigured with Westport’s LNG fuel system technology.
The sweet spot for the LNG tractors is heavy-load, high fuel-consumption applications. Judging from my time driving the LNG-equipped T800 around the test track, the 475-hp engine provided plenty of torque – listed at 1,750 lb-ft – especially on the low end.
Despite cost benefits, infrastructure concerns remain.
The LNG-equipped T800 isn’t new; it’s been in production since 2008. Its introduction coincided with the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach’s $1.6 billion Clean Truck Program intended to replace many of the ports’ older diesel trucks with LNG models – and demand slowly has begun to build for the new engine technology. The port program has added roughly 350 T800 LNG trucks, and other fleets are starting to take a serious look at the technology.
Last year, Bridgeport, Conn.-based Enviro Express purchased several LNG trucks for a municipal garbage hauling operation. The company expects the trucks to run two 110-mile trips per day, with each tractor running 135,000 miles annually. More recently, C.R. England signed an agreement with PacLease to lease several LNG trucks to haul syrup for Coca-Cola between Ontario, Calif., and Las Vegas.
Andy Douglas, Kenworth’s national sales manager for specialty markets, says as diesel prices rise, alternative fuels like LNG quickly can grab a fleet’s attention. “At the retail pump, the average price of LNG is $2.10 per diesel gallon equivalent,” he says. “When you start to see a good $1.50 to $2 spread and do the math, it makes a lot of sense.”
But even as fleets explore the merits of LNG in specific applications, the lack of infrastructure threatens to limit widespread adoption of this alternative fuel option – at least for the time being. While a LNG fueling station corridor linking Los Angeles to Salt Lake City is nearly complete, and Texas is laying the groundwork for natural gas fueling stations in the “Texas Triangle” between Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, there’s little other infrastructure to support fleet usage of LNG trucks on a broader basis.
As of July 31, there are only 44 active LNG fueling stations nationwide, and 35 of those reside in California. In a positive sign for LNG station growth, Chesapeake Energy recently announced a $150 million investment in Clean Energy to accelerate the rollout of a natural gas fueling infrastructure along major U.S. trucking corridors.
Another factor that could impact LNG adoption is proper fuel management. In its normal state, natural gas is a vapor. LNG requires the gas to be cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit to condense into liquid form. As the temperature begins to rise in the tank, LNG begins to vaporize, requiring it to be either used immediately or vented into the atmosphere, which wastes fuel and creates potential environmental implications.
“If a customer fuels a LNG tractor every day, the liquid that you’re putting in on the vapor barrier recondenses some of it back into liquid, so you minimize venting,” says Kelly Mills, western U.S. territory sales manager for Westport HD. “If you teach the customer early on how to fuel properly and manage the routes to make sure he uses the fuel, you can virtually eliminate venting.”
With the increasing buzz of alternative fuels expanding into heavy-duty operations, it’s nice to see that the technology is available to serve the market. Some forward-thinking fleets are willing to invest the resources in an attempt to cut diesel use and lower operating costs. But when will there be enough infrastructure to support widespread adoption?
Jeff Crissey is Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal.
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