Natural Gas – Conversions, Vehicles and Technology

The State of Alt-Fuel Refueling Infrastructure in the U.S.

July 2013, Green Fleet Magazine - Cover Story

by Sean Lyden - Also by this author

One of the key challenges to widespread adoption of alternative-fuel vehicles — specifically those powered by natural gas, propane autogas, and electricity — has been the limited refueling infrastructure available to support a broad range of fleet applications.

It’s one thing to install fueling or charging infrastucture onsite, which works well for relatively short routes and return-to-base operations, especially for fleets with the capital and size to make onsite fueling financially feasible; but, what about higher daily mileage applications, which may extend beyond the range available from an onsite refueling or charging system? What about the smaller fleets that don't possess the resources to make onsite fueling practical?

That’s where the expansion of public refueling/recharging infrastructure and more affordable private onsite systems come into focus. As access to alt fuels increases, so will acceptance by fleets and consumers alike, creating demand, driving down the overall cost of deploying the infrastructure and the operational costs of the vehicles.

So, what exactly is the state of alt-fuel refueling/recharging infrastructure in the U.S. today? Where is it heading? What does the future hold?

Anchoring CNG & LNG

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC), as of press time, there are 578 compressed natural gas (CNG) and 32 liquefied natural gas (LNG) public refueling stations in the U.S. But, these numbers don’t give an accurate picture of the full scope of available natural gas refueling capacity, said Peter Grace, senior vice president, sales & finance for Clean Energy Fuels Corp., a provider of natural gas fuel for transportation in North America.

“CNG fueling infrastructure has been focused on serving fleet vehicles, not consumers. This means that tracking the number of public access fuel stations doesn't correctly reflect the number of fleets that have converted to run on natural gas,” Grace said. “Many of the fleets are return-to-base fleets and, therefore, use private stations, because it’s more convenient and operationally efficient.”

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is the U.S. government’s primary facility for renewable energy research and development, based in Golden, Colo. Margo Melendez, the fuels, vehicles, and transportation deployment manager for the NREL, explained that “to make an investment in a CNG fueling station payoff, a solid base level of demand, such as a fleet, is required. Because most CNG fueling stations are built to support a specific fleet or group of fleets, these fleets tend to build stations to meet their own demands — and are not in the fuel retailing business and often do not provide public access.”

There are currently 578 compressed natural gas (CNG) and 32 liquefied natural gas (LNG) public stations in the U.S. The total number of CNG and LNG stations are much higher due to the fact that many fleets have pumps located on their premises.
There are currently 578 compressed natural gas (CNG) and 32 liquefied natural gas (LNG) public stations in the U.S. The total number of CNG and LNG stations are much higher due to the fact that many fleets have pumps located on their premises.

In terms of natural gas public infrastructure expansion, LNG is seeing the fastest growth because of the fuel’s use in long-haul trucking fleets, said Stephe Yborra, director of market development for NGVAmerica, a national organization dedicated to the development of a growing, profitable, and sustainable market for vehicles powered by natural gas or biomethane.

Grace agreed. “In anticipation of the long-haul trucking industry’s transition to LNG — a form of natural gas better suited for over-the-road goods movement — we completed the first phase of LNG infrastructure last year by constructing 70 stations as part of America's Natural Gas Highway, and we expect to build another 30 to 50 of these stations this year. This infrastructure is ready to be put to use coast-to-coast and border-to-border as demand increases in this important market sector,” he said.

[Editor’s Note: America’s Natural Gas Highway is a network for LNG truck fueling stations on the Interstate Highway System and in major metropolitan areas.

What’s the outlook for CNG/LNG infrastructure in the next five to 10 years?

“Due to the fuel cost advantages of CNG compared to diesel in the market today [as of press time, $1.50-$1.75 saving per DGE], there is a growing interest in CNG vehicles, which will lead to growth in CNG infrastructure overall,” Melendez said. “Because of the investment required for construction of a new CNG station, the model of using an anchor fleet will still prevail. However, there is growing interest in finding methods to provide public access by identifying groups that can finance, build, and operate infrastructure for fleets.”

Dave Hurst, principal research analyst for Navigant Research, a market research and consulting firm focusing on global, clean technology markets offered this outlook: “The availability of natural gas and investment in natural gas drilling has really been pushing the interest to add natural gas to existing gas stations. We are anticipating the number of natural gas stations both public and private in the U.S. to grow to about 3,300 by 2020.”

Propane Autogas: a Growing Alternative

The AFDC puts the current number of propane autogas — also known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — public fueling stations in the U.S. at 2,607.

As with CNG and LNG, the propane-autogas refueling infrastructure is geared primarily toward onsite, private access for fleets.

“To this point, and the foreseeable future, propane autogas vehicles are marketed to the fleet customer, and not the consumer. The refueling infrastructure is so economical to install and maintain that private fleets can easily install it at their operation and not provide public access,” said Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

Yet, the industry has recently seen an uptick in the number of public access stations to meet the increased market demand by smaller fleets that do not have a central garage location, Perkins added.

“With the overall expansion of [propane-autogas-powered] vehicles available, this demand for infrastructure will continue to increase,” he noted.

One of the key factors driving growth in propane-autogas refueling infrastructure is the relatively low cost of tank installation and operation, Perkins said. “Propane autogas installations are easy to permit, simple to install, and can be designed to be portable so that the site can be redeployed to another location or easily expanded as demand increases,” Perkins observed.

Because of its lower cost, natural gas is expected to see a boom in the next five to 10 years. Likewise, electric vehicle charging stations are expected to reach nearly a half-million units by 2020.
Because of its lower cost, natural gas is expected to see a boom in the next five to 10 years. Likewise, electric vehicle charging stations are expected to reach nearly a half-million units by 2020.

Hurst of Navigant Research said that setting up a propane-autogas refueling station — something as simple as placing a storage tank onsite with a pump — costs about $25,000-$50,000.

“CNG refueling, in comparison, is more complex because the fuel is provided by gas pipelines and requires compressors and cooling systems, which cost approximately $250,000 or more depending on the line pressure and location of the gas lines. However, suppliers of both fuels, propane autogas and CNG, are offering fleet customers’ stations at no cost with fuel contracts," Hurst said.

Are there certain regions in the U.S. expanding propane autogas refueling infrastructure faster than others?

“In the past few years, we have seen a lot of growth in the Southeast, Pacific Northwest, and West Coast,” Perkins. “Because our public infrastructure tends to follow large scale public and private vehicle deployment, we actually see a lot of geographical balance for the installation.”

Perkins predicted that the number of propane-autogas refueling stations could multiply by as much as three to four times over the next decade.

“The growth rate for public infrastructure will continue to increase over the next 10 years due to the rapidly increasing propane-autogas vehicle sales,” Perkins said. “This year alone will see two new medium-duty truck applications with propane-autogas engines, exposing an entirely new market segment to propane-autogas fueled vehicles. When you couple this rapid growth in vehicles with the low installation cost of the infrastructure, it is easy to forecast rapid expansion at a higher rate than the past decade.”

Recharging the Grid

To date, there are 5,894 public plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) recharging stations in the U.S., according to the AFDC. And, the total number of public electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) available in the U.S. (since each station may contain more than one charge point) was 13,212 at the end of 2012, as cited by a recent Navigant Research report, “Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment Tracker 1Q13.”

Christine Rogala, director of public relations for the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), said the recent expansion in PEV recharging  station infrastructure has been driven by exponential growth in electric drive sales, with manufacturers increasing consumer PEV offerings.

“Yearly plug-in vehicle sales increased 198 percent from 2011 to 2012 and the number of available models in the U.S. market is expected to triple by model-year 2015. The auto industry is closing in on 100,000 plug-in sales in the U.S., just over two years since bringing the technology to market,” Rogala said. “The increasing sales of vehicles promote private, commercial, and municipal investments in diverse recharging options. The proliferation of visible charging options, in turn, helps to build interest and acceptance of plug-in vehicles. The more consumers see their diverse charging options, the easier it is for them to appreciate how a plug-in vehicle can meet their needs.”

Hurst of Navigant Research said that, despite a recent slowdown in federal funding for PEV charging station infrastructure, municipalities, states, and businesses (such as malls and grocery stores), have been picking up the slack and continuing the growth trend.

“In 2013, we are anticipating about 32,000 commercial PEV chargers to be sold, with 11,307 being public chargers, and the rest going to workplaces and fleets,” Hurst said.
What does the future hold for PEV recharging station infrastructure?

“The goal of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Workplace Charging Challenge, to which EDTA is an ambassador, is a ten-fold increase in the number of American employers offering workplace charging for electric vehicles in five years,” Rogala said. “We know that most charging occurs at home and the workplace, where cars are already parked nearly half of the day. So, installing PEV charging stations in the workplace helps employers offer an attractive employee benefit, which also enhances corporate sustainability efforts and signals corporate leadership in adopting advanced technology. Major employers such as General Electric and Verizon have signed on and the list is growing.” 

Rogala added that companies such as Walgreens, Kroger, and Whole Foods have begun offering PEV charging stations to customers to gain a competitive advantage.

“It’s a chance to offer another service to your customer, who can charge while they shop. And, landlords are attracting top-tier tenants by distinguishing their properties with the most innovative and environmentally conscious amenities,” Rogala said.  

Hurst’s prediction: “By 2020, we expect that the U.S. will see about 482,000 EV charging-equipment sales. About half of these sales (48 percent) will be commercial chargers, including fleets, public spaces, and workplaces.”

What types of new recharging technologies will emerge as the recharging infrastructure expands?

Propane autogas is the third most popular fuel in the world. As with the other leading alt-fuels, its infrastructure is expected to grow in the next decade.
Propane autogas is the third most popular fuel in the world. As with the other leading alt-fuels, its infrastructure is expected to grow in the next decade.

“Within five to 10 years, adoption of the currently available technology for plug-in electric vehicle charging infrastructure — including typical AC Level 1 (120v) and AC Level 2 (208-240v), as well as DC fast charging — will probably expand slowly,” said Mike Simpson, systems engineer, transportation technologies and systems at NREL. “With the recent commercialization of wireless charging, it’s possible we’ll see the convenience factor it provides outweigh additional costs for the wealthier market segments.”

Hurst added: “Wireless charging won’t really get started in earnest until late 2014 or 2015, but we are expecting strong growth with sales reaching almost 74,000 units by 2020. DC fast charging is another area that will see strong growth (51-percent compound annual growth rate between 2012 and 2020). This year, about 1,600 DC fast charge units will be sold, with 14,619 in 2020 expected. Battery swapping is for the most part dead at the moment. The little that will happen will be relegated to very specialized uses due to lack of vehicle compatibility and the high cost of the swapping stations.”

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