Perhaps you’re aware, but diesel fuel is pretty expensive these days. Okay, so I was being Captain Obvious there, but there’s little doubt that the cost of diesel fuel is straining the budgets of businesses, organizations, and governments that rely on the use of diesel powered vehicles to carry out their work. In the past, there have been few alternatives to diesel and it has become just a cost of doing business, but a familiar energy source is now finding its way into fleet vehicles throughout the U.S.: Compressed Natural Gas (CNG).
Recent revelations about the large reserves of natural gas sitting under the U.S. and the availability of the technology to tap into those resources have made natural gas an economically viable, secure, and long term fuel source. In fact, CNG has been about 60% cheaper than diesel fuel over the last few years, so it’s no wonder people have found a way to power their vehicles with it.
How do Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles Work?
Now before you rush out to fill your tank with natural gas there’s a few things you should know:
- First, in order to use natural gas, you’re going to need a vehicle that can actually use it. CNG vehicles require different engines, fuel lines, fuel injectors, pressure regulators, shut-off valves and other components than the traditional vehicle.
- The cost of these vehicles can be upwards of $50,000 more for heavy-duty vehicles and over $20,000 more for lighter-duty vehicles compared to their traditional fuel counterparts. However many states and municipalities, as well as the federal government, offer tax credits or incentives to help offset the cost of CNG vehicles.
- The engine of a CNG vehicle is still an internal combustion engine that injects natural gas vapor into the engine where it is spark ignited, much like a traditional gasoline or diesel powered engine.
- New CNG vehicles utilize fuel that is stored at a pressure of 3,600 lbs. per square inch (psi), but older vehicles may use 3,000 psi systems. To ensure that you don’t put the wrong fuel into your vehicle, each pressure level has a different shaped nozzle, similar to how gasoline and diesel have different colored nozzles.
- Filling up a CNG fuel tank can also take time. Higher density fueling, which allows for greater range, can take several hours, though lower density fueling can be done in several minutes, but at the expense of fuel range.
- Natural gas vehicles produce 20 to 30 percent less greenhouse gases compared to gasoline and diesel vehicles, while also reducing expulsion of toxins by 95 percent.
The Multi-Industry Alternative
For many industries that utilize heavy duty trucking in their operations, switching to CNG vehicles is well underway and growing exponentially. From long-distance trucking companies to retailers, to delivery companies to distributors, you will find organizations at the top of these industries embracing CNG vehicles. Overall it is expected that 5% of all heavy duty trucks sold in 2014 will use natural gas for fuel, five times the amount sold in 2013. Waste Management has already converted 15% of their fleet to CNG, Ryder envisions having 10% to 20% of their fleet transitioned in the next five years, and FedEx has plans to have 30% of its long-distance fleet shifted during the next ten years. Lowe’s even thinks that all its trucks will use CNG by 2017 – those overachievers!
While most large organizations don’t see their entire fleets being operated by CNG, with Lowe’s being the exception, the extensive emission reduction and low cost of fuel are the incentives driving more and more companies to use CNG. Given the current cost of CNG, payback periods for CNG fleets can be as little as a year and a half to two years. Through working with companies like Clean Energy Fuels and General Electric, organizations can even purchase CNG vehicles at prices in line with traditional diesel vehicles in exchange for a CNG fuel contract, providing further savings.
But not only are corporations jumping on the CNG caravan in droves, governments are increasingly turning to CNG vehicles as parts of their fleets. More than 20 states have signed a Memorandum of Understanding since 2011, which has the goal of pressuring vehicle manufactures to produce more CNG vehicles. States, such as Colorado, have even developed their own pledges with municipalities and businesses to begin restocking state fleets with CNG vehicles. In particular, CNG vehicles have proved especially viable for mass transit and public works fleets.
Time to Fill Up, But Where?
If there is one thing holding back the expansion of CNG vehicles, it is the lack of fuel station infrastructure. Currently there are less than 700 CNG fuel stations available to the public. And if you’re in the upper plains, you probably won’t get too far in a CNG vehicle. The Federal Government, as well as many state and municipal governments, has created various financial incentives to encourage the development of CNG fueling stations. But these initiatives have yet to get CNG infrastructure where it needs to be. This can make it a logistical challenge to ensure your fleets vehicles will be able to refuel wherever they go. After all, nothing would be worse than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a CNG fleet, only to find they can’t go where you want.
For this reason many organizations that invest in CNG fleet vehicles also invest in their own CNG fueling stations. However, this also limits their fleets to routine, relatively short distance routes. Unfortunately, until CNG fueling infrastructure drastically improves, CNG fleets will have to deal with some limits on their capabilities. Despite these limitations, CNG fleets remain a long term, cost-effective and sustainable investment for organizations across many industries. And they will be more so when infrastructure finally catches up.
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