There may be a strong case to be made for using natural gas to fuel the country’s heavy-duty trucks, but for years that case has been ruled by inarguable logic: Truckers don’t buy natural gas because there’s no nationwide distribution network, and there’s no distribution network because truckers don’t buy natural gas.
Yet after years of fueling transit buses and garbage trucks, natural gas is edging closer to becoming a credible alternative to diesel as a fuel for over-the-road trucks.
A new generation of natural gas-powered trucks and a network of fueling stations to feed them are rolling off the drawing board and will hit the road over the next few years.
Chesapeake Energy, a natural gas producer, will invest $150 million to help Clean Energy Fuels, a distributor, build 150 liquefied natural gas fueling stations along major trucking corridors nationwide over the next two years.
The investment in Clean Energy is the first part of a billion-dollar, 10-year initiative that Chesapeake launched this month to increase demand for natural gas.
The Oklahoma City-based company also said it will accelerate the conversion of its 4,500 light trucks to compressed natural gas and 400 heavy trucks to run on LNG.
As diesel costs rise, trucking customers will play an important role in getting carriers to add more natural gas-powered vehicles to their fleets, said Andrew J. Littlefair, president and CEO of Clean Energy Fuels.
Broader use of LNG or CNG could provide truckers and shippers with a cheaper domestic fuel at a time when rising fuel costs threaten supply chains. Diesel prices bumping against $4 a gallon are renewing and raising interest in natural gas, which currently sells for about $1.50 to $2 less than diesel.
As of July 12, the per gallon gasoline equivalent price of CNG at Clean Energy’s Seal Beach, Calif., fueling station was $2.75, according to cngprices.com.
The retail price of CNG at fueling stations nationwide in early July ranged from about $1 to $3 per gallon gas equivalent, depending on the location and the retailer.
Diesel prices are more uniform around the country, of course, but the volatility in recent years has been causing havoc with budgets and raising tempers between shippers and carriers.
Clean Energy Fuels already operates CNG and LNG stations to serve local fleets operated by waste haulers, airport and mass transit lines and regional trucking companies.
About half of the 150 new LNG fueling stations will be at Pilot-Flying J truck stops along major highways. Others likely will be at industrial sites.
The plan, Littlefair said, is to place the LNG stations about 250 miles apart along major interstate highways. As they open, “you begin to get pretty nice coverage,” he said.
Littlefair doesn’t think it will take long for truckers to compare fuel bills and convert more vehicles to natural gas fuels, especially if they can save $1.50 to $1.70 a gallon.
In 2008, only 3 percent of new waste trucks were CNG-powered, he said. By 2012, he says, 40 percent of new garbage trucks will run on natural gas fuel.
“It didn’t take the refuse guys 20 years to figure this out,” Littlefair said, “and if I’m right, it won’t take a company like Swift Transportation 15 years to phase this in.”