A second look at natural gas
Greater fueling infrastructure and increased strength make natural gas-powered vocational trucks a viable option for Canadian operators
For years, the idea of an alternative fuel that could power heavy trucks, was significantly less expensive than diesel, could be run with no engine modifications and experienced less pricing volatility than diesel seemed like, well, a pipeline dream. But much of that has changed over the course of the past couple years.
While there’s still no nationwide fuelling infrastructure for natural gas, there now exists a fairly extensive and well-proven product line. And in a vocational truck environment, where trucks usually stick close to home base, all that’s really required is one or two reliable fuelling stations.
A confluence of events has many truck operators taking a close look at whether natural gas is a viable option for them.
Robert Carrick, sales manager, natural gas with Freigthliner, told a group of truck writers at a recent natural gas event, that no topic has come up more frequently with customers over the past year than natural gas.
There are two main reasons for this: the decoupling of prices between natural gas and diesel, with the former staying flat while diesel has continued its slow creep upwards; and the sudden availability of a wide range of engines and vehicles that can run off the cleaner-burning fuel.
To a lesser extent, there’s been some pressure on truckers from customers to switch to more environmentally friendly transportation technologies.
The increased interest in natural gas was bolstered by the arrival of the much-anticipated Cummins Westport ISX12 G. Previously, most natural gas trucks were relying on the ISL G, a 9-litre engine considered by many to be underpowered for Canadian applications.
The option that has received some uptake in this market is the Westport 15-litre GX engine, which can run on liquefied natural gas, but is diesel-ignited, so it still requires a diesel particulate filter (DPF) and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) exhaust aftertreatment systems, adding some complexity and cost.
The ISX12 G has been heralded as the answer to a wider range of applications without requiring SCR and a DPF, allowing gross vehicle weight ratings right up to 80,000 lbs. It can be designed to run off natural gas in compressed or liquefied form, giving customers greater versatility.
“This engine has been touted for two or three years,” says Carrick. “Everyone was waiting for it. Never in history was the cart so far ahead of the horse, with everyone thinking they were going to get engines before everyone else.”
Those engines are beginning to trickle into the market, and can be ordered in a pretty diverse range of vehicles from Freightliner, Kenworth, Peterbilt, Mack and Volvo—even Autocar, in the refuse truck segment.
I recently drove a Freightliner Cascadia with ISX12 G in Napa Valley, Calif., and found it to be flush with torque and power, while driving whisper-quiet. It did emit an unpleasant, high-pitched noise upon release of the throttle, which I suspect will be eliminated when full production commences. It didn’t seem to affect performance in any way, but did detract from one of natural gas’s most appealing attributes from an operator’s perspective, that being its quiet operation.
Unlike the ISL G, which is only available with automatic gearboxes, its bigger brother can be ordered with both manual and automatic transmissions.
Drivers who give natural gas a try will have little to complain about. The engine puts out diesel-like torque, if not better, and is quieter to operate. Drivers also appreciate that they’re able to go home at the end of a shift not smelling of diesel fuel.
One of the biggest challenges facing early adopters has been to design a truck that provides sufficient range. Mike DelBovo, president of Saddle Creek Transportation in Lakeland, Fla., now has 19 million kilometres of natural gas trucking experience, more than any other over-the-road fleet in North America.
The company is currently working with Freightliner on its fourth-generation natural gas vehicles, which DelBovo hopes will achieve a range of 1,126 kilometres between fills.
Like Saddle Creek, many of the early users of natural gas-powered trucks have worked with gas suppliers to build fuelling stations on their own premises. But a network of publicly accessible fuelling stations is beginning to take form.
Shell this summer opened the first of its LNG fuelling stations in Calgary, Alta. It plans to develop an LNG corridor linking Calgary to Edmonton. This investment led to the purchase by Bison Transport of 15 LNG-fuelled Peterbilt highway tractors.
In Quebec, Gaz Metro continues to add LNG stations along what it has dubbed the ‘Blue Road,’ providing a corridor between Ontario and Quebec City, where LNG-powered trucks can gas up.
In the Atlantic provinces, Irving Oil has indicated it will begin building natural gas fuelling stations from the East Coast into Quebec.
On the opposite coast, Vedder Transport has built an LNG fuelling station at its Abbotsford yard, which is open to the public, and it plans to work with its natural gas partner Fortis to build more fuelling stations between the Lower Mainland of B.C. and Alberta.
Vedder, incidentally, may be putting LNG-fuelled trucks to their most rigorous test. The fleet of 15 Peterbilt trucks hauls solid waste, grossing 140,000 lb., between the Lower Mainland and Cache Creek, B.C.—a 660-kilometre round-trip.
“I would have to say, 200 of those miles are probably some of the toughest pulling in the province of B.C. that you’d find, maybe anywhere in North America, with 6 to 8 per cent grades over about 50 per cent of that round-trip,” said Vedder Transport president Fred Zweep.
Most of the Canadian companies already using natural gas trucks have opted for the 15-litre Westport GX engine. It provides up to 475 hp and 1,750 lb.-ft. of torque.
In 2015, Cummins will come out with its own 15-litre engine, which will be spark-ignited and therefore won’t require a DPF or SCR, though some added maintenance consisting of spark plug replacements will be necessary.
Volvo, too, is currently working on designing a big bore natural gas engine of its own.
Product availability is no longer an issue, however, cost can be.
Natural gas-powered trucks cost $60,000 to $90,000 more than a diesel equivalent. Most of this is due to the high cost of the tanks, which must be engineered to store fuel at 3,600 psi (in the case of CNG) or at -260 F (for LNG).
Advances in tank design and increased demand are expected to bring the cost of the tanks down. But even today, in applications where enough miles are accumulated, a payback can be achieved.
Currently, LNG costs about 30 per cent less than diesel and there is no road tax on natural gas, though that could change if widespread adoption of the fuel is noticed by the feds and provinces that rely heavily on diesel taxes to fill their coffers. Some provinces, such as Quebec, offer tax incentives to switch to natural gas.&n
When considering new technologies, most truck owners eye a payback of two to three years before taking the plunge, which is attainable in certain, but not all, operations. “You have to be running the miles and sourcing the fuel at the right cost,” to get an ROI in two to three years, Carrick admitted.
James Menzies is editor of On-Site’s sister publication Truck News. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.