Natural gas vehicles (NGVs) offer numerous advantages for companies looking to “green” their fleet. The price of compressed natural gas (CNG) is at historic lows compared to diesel and gasoline. Natural gas also burns cleaner, contributing to lower emissions and maintenance costs and is a homegrown fuel, supporting government initiatives that promote U.S. energy independence.
But, with a limited number of fueling stations available and an incremental cost of $10,000 to $20,000 or higher (depending on vehicle type and size) to convert vehicles to operate on natural gas, can it become a viable alternative for widespread fleet use?
Green Fleet magazine spoke with representatives at AT&T, Giant Eagle, and Waste Management — all of which have made substantial investments in vehicular natural gas technology — to get their first-hand perspective on NGVs. The following details their programs and results.
■ Sector: Telecommunications
■ Types of NGVs: Service vans, light aerial bucket trucks, Ford F-250s, and passenger sedans.
In March 2009, AT&T announced plans to invest up to $565 million as part of a long-term strategy to deploy approximately 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles through 2018, including replacing up to 8,000 vehicles with compressed natural gas models — one of the largest U.S. corporate commitments to CNG vehicles to date. As of January 2012, AT&T had added more than 5,000 CNG vehicles.
According to a 2009 Center for Automotive Research report, AT&T’s planned alternative-fuel vehicle initiative would save 49 million gallons of gasoline over the 10-year deployment period and reduce harmful emissions by 211,000 metric tons — the greenhouse gas equivalent of removing 38,600 passenger vehicles from the road for one year.
■ Why natural gas? “We chose CNG technology and feel it is important to AT&T because it’s a cost-effective way to help us reduce our fleet-based carbon emissions,” said Katie Dugan, associate director, Global Fleet Operations, AT&T. “It’s also readily available in our country right now. This is an investment in the future of our company, one that will allow us to operate more efficiently for years to come. Having a fleet our size means that any change can make a significant, positive difference, and, as a result, we hope to help spark greater market demand for alternative-fuel technologies.”
■ Results: “We expect to avoid the purchase of 2.5 million gallons of unleaded gasoline in 2012 and each additional year our fleet of CNG vehicles are in use,” Dugan said.
■ Challenges: “In any region, the availability of public infrastructure is the greatest challenge to deploying CNG vehicles,” Dugan noted.
■ Future NGV plans: “We expect to continue progress toward our goal of replacing up to 8,000 vehicles with CNG models [by 2018],” Dugan said.
Giant Eagle Inc./
■ Sector: Food & beverage delivery
■ Types of NGVs: Class 8 trucks and sedans.
Giant Eagle Inc. is one of the nation’s largest food retailers and distributors, with approximately $9.3 billion in annual sales. The company operates 229 supermarkets and 172 fuel and convenience stores throughout the northeast.
Since July 2011, Giant Eagle has deployed 10 natural gas-powered Volvo VMN Class 8 trucks and is awaiting delivery of 10 more similarly equipped trucks. The company estimates that the 10 CNG trucks will displace more than 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel during the first year of operation. The company has also built a CNG-fueling station at its Pittsburgh retail support center and another at the same location outside the fence for local public access.
■ Why natural gas? “As the domestic supply of natural gas increased and the transportation industry found new ways to transport the fuel, we explored CNG,” explained Bill Parry, vice president of logistics, Giant Eagle, Inc. “Today, there is much more resolve from the public and private sectors to make this work, including the manufacture of new NGV tractors designed to accommodate this region’s hilly terrain. There are also significant cost savings as these trucks operate at about one-third the fuel cost of diesel counterparts.”
■ Results: “Our NGVs and equipment are extremely reliable, with those vehicles completely incorporated into our fleet without exception or restriction,” Parry said. “Driver acceptance has been phenomenal. Our natural gas trucks run quieter and the conversion created a sense of patriotism as our team members feel like they are doing the right thing using domestic fuel.”
■ Challenges: “Mpg per unit is slightly below what we were averaging with diesel trucks. The current 8.9L engine is smaller than our typical engine and we had to change the gear ratio to maximize performance,” Parry said. To overcome this challenge, Giant Eagle is going to beta test an 11.9L engine.
■ Future NGV plans: “Our plan is to convert all of our heavy-duty vehicles to natural gas,” Parry said. “In the past year, we have received a number of environmental awards related to our conversion to natural gas.”
■ Sector: Refuse
■ Types of NGVs: Class 8 collection and service trucks.
Waste Management Inc., headquartered in Houston, was recently recognized by the Clean Vehicle Education Foundation for achieving the milestone of deploying its 1,000th natural gas-powered truck and the company’s advancement of NGVs and fueling technologies. Many of Waste Management’s natural gas-powered trucks, including one-third now in service in California, run on “trash gas,” a biogas derived from the decomposition of landfill organic waste that’s converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG), and then transported to its truck depots.
Nationwide, Waste Management operates more than 1,400 NGVs and said the vehicles will represent approximately 80 percent of the company’s new truck purchases for 2012 and over the next five years.
The company estimates that for every diesel truck it replaces with natural gas, it decreases fuel use by an average of 8,000 gallons per year and reduces GHGs by 22 metric tons, per year, per truck.
■ Why natural gas? “This isn’t something we just ‘got into.’ We’ve been pioneering NGV use from the early ’90s,” said Wes Muir, director of communications, Waste Management. “We see natural gas as a very quick-to-market solution to reduce our costs, carbon footprint, and maintenance costs. Natural gas is priced at historic lows, and, even if the rates go up, it is still very favorable compared to diesel.”
■ Results: “One thing our customers really like is that NGV trucks are far quieter than their diesel predecessors,” Muir said. “There is also cost avoidance with maintenance issues because the fuel burns so much cleaner, causing less ash build-up than diesel”
■ Challenges: “Except for the challenges that come with high internal demand for natural gas, we haven’t really come across any real issues operating NGVs,” Muir said.
■ Future NGV plans: “We’re constantly looking for new ways to optimize our operations, including expanding natural gas use,” Muir said. “Right now, we own 28 fueling stations. We plan to have 50 by end of 2012.”