Large U.S. reserves and the ability to use existing engine technology make natural gas attractive. In fact, natural gas price projections are significantly lower than historical averages as more information becomes available on massive shale gas reserves.
“Natural gas supply has skyrocketed because of the shale gas,” says Richard Kolodziej, president, NGVAmerica. “Demand is growing, but slowly. That puts huge downward pressure on price.” Price at the time of this writing was under $4 per million BTUs. “There are 8 gal. gasoline equivalent in a million BTUs. There are 7 gal. diesel equivalent in a million BTUs.”
This pricing makes natural gas very appealing. “In duty cycles that use a lot of fuel, there are customers that can pay back their vehicle in a year or a year and a half,” Kolodziej estimates.
“For a CNG tractor running 80,000 miles a year, you might see payback in less than two years without any government assistance,” says Greg Treinen, segment manager - vocational segments and alternate fuel product marketing, Freightliner Trucks. “On the other hand, for a vocational or local delivery customer running 20,000 miles or less, that payback might end up being five years or more.
“The incremental cost of a CNG truck with a 9-liter engine is in the $40,000 to $45,000 range,” Treinen says. “Maintenance costs can be a little more on an annual basis — with more frequent oil and filter changes, and spark plug replacement — to the tune of $.01 to $.02 per mile. But remember, you are also not performing maintenance on or replacing any diesel aftertreatment equipment or fuel injectors.”
In construction, getting sufficient utilization can become a challenge. “Of all the market segments, construction has been one of the slower industries to adopt natural gas,” says Treinen. “This is mainly due to the fact that these are markets where the trucks, in many cases, aren’t driven the number of miles necessary to experience the fuel cost savings to achieve a quick payback.”
Natural gas is available as compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). “The main advantage for both fuel types is cost,” says Roy Horton, Mack Trucks alternative fuel and driveline marketing product manager. “CNG is approximately 40 percent to 50 percent less than diesel in many areas. Some areas have greater than 50 percent delta between the CNG and diesel, such as in Oklahoma. LNG, while still developing in most areas, is between 30 percent to 40 percent less than diesel.”
“Fuel selection is driven by economics and availability, among other factors,” says Scott Fiveland, GAS new technology manager, Caterpillar. “Since natural gas offers savings to customers due to lower fuel operating costs, Caterpillar expects natural gas growth to explode. The economic savings, depending on the natural-gas-to-diesel fuel delta, can translate to more than a 50 percent savings to the customer in operating fuel costs.”
Demand is being driven by big fuel burners such as railroads and mining operations. “A locomotive will consume 300,000 gal./year,” says Paul Blomerus, senior director, high horsepower corporate development, Westport Innovations. “The biggest mine trucks can more than double that. The economic motive is extreme. The business is growing where the volume is large (Class 8 or smaller trucking) or where the fuel burns are large. The middle will fill in and it will benefit from the new engine technologies developed.”
At approximately 1.6 percent of the combined total heavy-truck fuel market in the U.S. and Canada, volumes today are still considered a niche market. But Horton predicts, “We will see growth to levels approaching 10 percent in the future, which will establish natural gas power as a mainstream segment, especially in refuse, construction and local/regional distribution applications. We have several vocational customers working to replace their diesel trucks with natural gas power. The main interest remains from customers who have trucks that return home every night.”