Sunday, January 29, 2012

Embracing Natural Gas Power Means Freight Trucks Join Other Logistics Sectors

Obama Statement Will Speed Fuel Conversion
Shipping News Feature

US – UK – WORLDWIDE – The announcement by President Obama this week during his State of the Union address in which he described the US as ‘the Saudi Arabia of natural gas’ may have a profound effect on the uptake of trucks used by the freight industry after the President’s commitment to offer a tax break which will see purchasers of natural gas powered trucks receive a credit for 50% of the extra cost levied on them against one driven by diesel or petrol. This should mean that cargo carrying vehicles will join other logistics sectors already using the technology as a matter of course and one major less than truckload (LTL) road haulage company has already signed up.

Over 125,000 buses in the US already run on natural gas and world wide well over thirteen million vehicles are powered either solely by liquefied (LNG) or compressed natural gas (CNG) with the applications growing continuously. Certainly, as our picture shows, the idea of using gas as a fuel has been around for over a century with trucks in World War 1 using coal gas and again as the necessity arose during WWII many freight and other commercial vehicles were to be seen sporting the giant gas bags atop their bodies.

In March 2010 US truck maker Peterbilt announced full production capability of natural gas powered heavy trucks at the Mid America Trucking Show and emphasised that all models fulfilled the requirements to achieve US EPA Certified Smart Way status. German maker Faun are to supply the US national waste transfer company Waste Management with a supply of natural gas powered semi’s to operate their new fleet of Rotopress garbage collection units where the trucks haul rubbish trailers, a system trialled across Europe for decades.

Meanwhile in the UK all Thames Travel require to fuel up their new type of buses is a suitable household gas supply, as fitted in their Wallingford headquarters. The company is trialling new 41 seater MAN powered buses in collaboration with the Gas Bus Alliance in the Oxfordshire area to discover the true cost of practical applications whilst producing lower emission levels.

Most notably for the freight industry though is the announcement, almost simultaneously with the President’s speech, that Con-way Freight, the less than truckload (LTL) arm of trucking and logistics giant Con-way Inc., and one of the true heavy hitters of the US road haulage scene, are launching a pilot program in the next few months to evaluate CNG powered trucks. Two specially built vehicles will be deployed in the Chicago area for use on local collection/delivery rotas with a view to expanding their area of operation as tests progress.

The area has been chosen due to the company’s Chicago facility having the equipment required to gas up the trucks with the compressed fuel which costs less than a third the price of diesel and half as much as LNG by volume. The trucks are to be made by Freightliner, Con-way’s usual vehicle supplier and initial estimates put the cost of each new unit at around $30,000 per truck, easily recoverable given the President’s munificence and assuming refuelling stations can be deployed in a wide pattern to suit Con-way’s delivery schedules.

Con-way executives are also anxious that the new trucks are acceptable to their staff but it is hard to see how a quieter, low emission unit which is economically competitive can fail unless it proves seriously underpowered and with the forecast that gas prices are likely to remain far more stable than those of imported oil, gas powered units may well be a long term stop gap as other more advanced technologies such as fuel cells are developed.