America’s natural gas boom is fueling big opportunities for cost-competitive and clean-burning transportation fuel applications.
A 2012 National Petroleum Council report projected that 40 percent of all new heavy trucks in the U.S. will run on natural gas by 2045 if prices continue to stay below diesel as expected. On the other hand, if gasoline and diesel prices rise faster than expected, they say we might see that 40 percent arrive as early as 2025.
Approximately 60 percent of all new U.S. garbage trucks purchased this year will operate on natural gas. Waste Management Inc., the largest garbage company in the U.S., estimates that switching to compressed natural gas (CNG) can enable a two-year payoff for their most expensive truck. Betting on lower natural gas prices and higher diesel, they have already converted 15 percent of their fleet to natural gas, and plan that 90 percent of their future purchases will go the same way.
High initial purchase costs continue to be a market impediment for all natural gas vehicles. Much of this extra expense is due to the large carbon-fiber fuel tanks required to store CNG or the more highly pressurized liquid natural gas (LNG). As the vehicle market grows, and more tank builders come on line, we can expect those prices to come down.
Buses are becoming a major natural gas market, already constituting about 20 percent of those in the U.S. Los Angeles is the leader, having completed switching its 2,600 bus fleet from diesel to CNG during 2011.
CNG now sells for about $1.50 less per gallon than its equivalent in diesel fuel at about $3.87 a gallon. Since trucks typically log many more miles than cars, those accumulated fuel savings can provide enormous business benefits over the long haul.
Natural gas vehicles also produce less carbon monoxide and sulfur-based pollution for each of those miles driven (not to mention less CO2 . . . if you buy into the global warming hype and really care about this).
Most long-haul trucks use LNG stored in chilled, heavy-duty tanks, while those used for regional and local routes and private automotive fleet vehicles invariably operate on CNG which can be pumped via a hose into a non-refrigerated tank.
Fleet vehicles such as taxis, limousines, and garbage trucks can either return to a home base for refueling at night from operators’ terminals and garages using low-pressure compressors, or at other locations as rapidly as 10-15 minutes using high-pressure “fast-fill” stations. However, since fast-fill gas is less dense, it doesn’t allow as much range on a single tank.
Ford’s popular F-150 pickup which appeared last November and GM's new 2015 Chevy Impala, due out in mid-2014 are examples of some that are designed to be CNG-adapted. Ford makes the base engines for their CNG trucks, and then sends them out to as outside company to be “prepped” for conversion.
Home-improvement retailer Lowe's intends to shift all of its several hundred delivery trucks to natural gas by 2017. Ryder Systems Inc. is rapidly adding natural gas to its 50,000-truck fleet, which the company anticipates will comprise between 10 percent and 20 percent of its inventory within five years.
UPS plans to purchase 1,000 CNG trucks by the end of next year, and FedEx aims to shift 30 percent of its long-distance trucks to natural gas over the next decade.
In addition to higher initial vehicle costs, an immature natural gas supply infrastructure also represents a market and operator obstacle. Fortunately, some companies recognize this challenge as a business opportunity.
Clean Energy Fuels, a company founded by T. Boone Pickens, has already established more than 400 natural gas fueling stations across the country. In January they announced plans to build their first LNG station in Florida (Jacksonville), along with others in Pontoon Beach, Ill., and Fontana, Calif.
In the final analysis, do natural gas vehicles make economic sense? With regard to private automobiles and trucks, that time may not yet have arrived due to a “chicken v. egg” conundrum. Demand for the vehicles hinges upon creating a sufficient vehicle market to bring prices down plus a convenient refueling infrastructure — both of which, in turn, must be justified by that market demand. Perhaps, led by the fleet vehicle industries, this will occur sooner than we might imagine, particularly in denser urban and suburban regions where refueling services can be optimally concentrated.
I’m also betting that our nation’s abundant supply of natural gas in combination with practical advantages afforded most particularly for LNG long-haul trucking applications, will continue to become more and more attractive over time due to an expanding fuel infrastructure and reduced vehicle costs achieved through market competition and economies of scale.
That growing marketplace will attract investment, and strong risk-willing enterprises will be rewarded. In fact, we all will.
Larry Bell is a professor and endowed professor at the University of Houston, where he directs the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture and heads the graduate program in space architecture. He is author of “Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax,” and his professional aerospace work has been featured on the History Channel and the Discovery Channel-Canada. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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