Many Trucking Companies Testing Natural Gas Conversion

January 31, 2012

The high price of diesel has many trucking companies looking for cheaper option when it comes to fuel. There are many obstacles in the short-term, but companies such as Wal-Mart and United Parcel Service are converting a small percentage of their vehicles to natural gas as a way to test the feasibility of switching over their fleets completely. Con-Way Freight is launching a program this spring to convert two of their Chicago area trucks to run on compressed natural gas instead of diesel fuel. They chose the Chicago area as their test market because CNG is available there, while it is not widely available in other parts of the country. Con-Way spokespeople said that the company will likely convert more of their trucks if the test is successful.

Reasons Companies are Considering Natural Gas

Cost savings is the number one reason that companies are considering the move to liquefied natural gas or CNG. The current price of CNG is around one dollar per gallon, while diesel costs around $3.39 per gallon. The price of LNG is about one dollar per gallon less than diesel, but the price fluctuates just like all fuel products. Experts estimate that the price of natural gas is especially low right now because the mild winter has lessened demand. The price will likely increase with increased consumption.

Another reason that companies are considering the conversion is that trucks that are fueled by natural gas are significantly quieter than those fueled by diesel. The noise of diesel trucks has prompted many cities across the United States to enact laws to reduce the amount of time truckers are allowed to idle their vehicles.

Obstacles to Converting Semi Truck Fleets to Natural Gas Fuel

The cost of converting vehicles to natural gas from diesel is a significant obstacle in the race toward conversion. It currently costs about $65,000 more for a company to purchase a truck that runs on LNG than a similar model that runs on diesel fuel. The economy has caused many companies to tighten their belts, and most are unwilling to make such a large investment upfront. The cost of buying a truck that runs on CNG is less, at about $30,000 more than a standard diesel truck, but still a large investment.

Trucking companies are also unsure about the costs to maintain a natural gas powered engine versus a diesel powered engine. Cummins is expected to release an LNG powered engine this year that will be priced similarly to a diesel engine, making the choice to convert an easier decision for companies.

The other main reason that trucking companies are apprehensive about converting their fleets is the lack of LNG and CNG fueling stations in most areas of the country. Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, an alternative fuels company, is building 70 LNG stations in 2012 and is planning to open another 80 stations in 2013. They are building these stations along some of the busiest truck routes in the United States, about 250 to 300 miles apart so that trucks running on LNG can be fueled easily. Clean Energy is working with Flying J and Pilot to add LNG pumps at existing truck stops throughout the country.

It is likely to be years before there is a significant increase in the number of trucks on the road powered by LNG or CNG rather than diesel, but more companies are expected to experiment with alternative fuels in the coming years. The availability of LNG powered engines is likely to increase over the next five to ten years, and tax credits have been proposed for companies who switch their fleets to LNG.

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