Natural Gas Fuel Loses Some of its Luster, But Not Going Away

April 2014, - WebXclusive

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Ryder's natural gas fleet of more than 500 natural gas vehicles has travelled more than 20 million miles, but not every fleet has been so successful.
Ryder's natural gas fleet of more than 500 natural gas vehicles has travelled more than 20 million miles, but not every fleet has been so successful.

The enthusiasm for natural gas fueled vehicles seems to be stuttering a bit. Cummins recently announced it would "pause" development on its 15-liter engine, and Volvo said at the Mid-America Trucking Show recently that its new natural gas engine, originally announced with a 2015 time frame for availability, would not even be in pre-production until late next year.

When asked about the development of the ISX 15 G at MATS, Dave Crompton, who heads up Cummins' Heavy Duty, MidRange and Light Duty Worldwide Product Businesses, explained, "We've paused a little bit to let the market and customers dictate how fast we will pull that through. It's not an indication at all that we're less committed or less excited about the market opportunities."

In fact, he pointed out that Cummins recently shipped its 3,000th natural gas ISX 12 G from the Janesville plant. And at MATS, OEMs were quick to show off their natural gas fueled tractors equipped with the engine.

[The ISX 12 G] has been a great launch," said Gordon Exel, president of Cummins Westport. "We think we will probably double production in 2014, so we're looking for a really good year."

That's despite a recent recall of more than 25,000 engines, he said. "It was a voluntary recall. We were challenged with some cold-weather operations – we found it more difficult this year due to the cold weather we saw in the Northeast. We do have a fix. That issue was seen because of a sensor on both the 8.9 and 12-liter."

In a roundtable with reporters, Daimler Trucks North America CEO Martin Daum said natural gas at this point is finding a bigger niche in local applications that can come home every night to a CNG filling station.

"Diesel is a better energy agent to propel heavy loads over up-and-down terrain," Daum said. "Natural gas is the cheaper fuel at the moment. It seems at the moment the balance is more for certain applications, heavy loads, long distances, is going to diesel."

Daum noted that DTNA sells only about 2,000-3,000 trucks a year with natural gas, and that the company has about half of the natural gas market.

"It's interesting, it's important, we take it serious," Daum said. "A lot of customers run it very successfully in local applications. We want to drive the technology because you might find the golden solution, but it's a little more difficult than thought and a little more expensive than thought."

In fact, transportation analysts at Stifel Nicolaus noted in an email to investors, "Most conference attendees had a more favorable outlook for the future of CNG rather than LNG, at least for most applications in the U.S."

That's borne out in a recent Reuters article about liquefied natural gas, which reported that most of the fleets it talked to that had adopted LNG had run into technical problems and unexpected costs that are pushing out the return on investment. One company had to install solar panels on truck roofs to power methane detectors. Another had early rigs stall on the road after LNG tanks were filled at the wrong pressure. Unexpected maintenance costs were another common headache.

On the Truck Fleet Innovators panel at the MATS Fleet Forum, NFI's Bill Bliem noted that his company has found that to get the desired return on investment, LNG-powered trucks need to run at least 140,000 miles a year, which they are doing in their Texas fleet with a slip seat operation.

Speaking at a sold-out Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association MATS Breakfast Briefing, Daimler Trucks head Wolfgang Bernhard acknowledged that natural gas is gaining more importance.

"You all know about the shale gas boom," he said. "However, if I look back a year ago, it looks like the wave has been building up and the wave might be breaking, some of the enthusiasm has been broken, the height is gone. More realism sets in. But it's not going away."

However, he pointed out that we still have 200 times more diesel fueling stations than natural gas, and they don't all have the loading capacity a truck might need. "And you have to make sure those engines are up to the task of hauling long distances – this is a different thing than urban stuff."

When asked in the question-and-answer session following his remarks about his favorite alternative fuel, Bernhard quipped, "My favorite alternative fuel is diesel," drawing a chuckle from the audience, "because I don't see any replacement for diesel, not even in the long run."

No, natural gas likely won't replace diesel, but for some fleets in certain applications, it can work. It's probably just going to take longer to reach the kind of adoption hoped for by LNG fans.

On the other hand, we have to note that UPS has started deploying a fleet of 1,100 heavy-haul LNG trucks, which have a 600-mile range. This is a company with a lot of experience with all types of alternative fuels, so it will be interesting to see how their adoption goes and if it helps drive the use of LNG in the industry.


  1. 1. Art Cordelay [ April 14, 2014 @ 05:22PM ]

    $5 per gallon diesel is not a good alternative Bernhard. LNG & CNG are soon to be the mainstream not the alternative.

  2. 2. Joe Flesch [ April 15, 2014 @ 06:01AM ]

    Diesel? CNG? LNG? Even better:

  3. 3. Greg Foreman [ April 15, 2014 @ 07:13AM ]

    CNG/LNG will be limited to primarily local and regional deliveries simply because the fuel is 1/3 efficient as diesel. This fact-ignoring for a moment the additional truck cost (which cost from 80K to 150K over the cost of a diesel rig), the lack of a fueling infrastructure(which cost from $1 to $1.50 million per station to install and not included in the price per gallon quotes of natural gas), the fact that fueling can take from 45 minutes to an hour just to fuel the truck-depending on the type of pumping unit installed, resulting in further lost of productivity, the fact that both CNG/LNG are both classified as GHG's, ie, Green House Gases, is the major hurdle prohibiting the adoption of CNG/LNG for over the road trucking. Until this factor is mitigated, utilization and adoption of natural gas as a primary fuel for the trucking industry is a “pipe dream”, a “snake oil” proposal. In fact, a better, a more efficient fuel than CNG/LNG already exist-PROPANE. Propane is already in usage, is already readily available with an infrastructure already in existence and, though less productive than diesel, is more productive than natural gas. Furthermore, propane is NOT classified as a GHG, ie, it is totally safe for the environment unlike natural gas. Natural gas simply has to many shortcomings and will never/ever be adopted for cross country trucking. It, natural gas will be limited to local and, possibly, regional operations.

  4. 4. Dehran Duckworth [ April 15, 2014 @ 07:49AM ]

    Diesel is here to stay and Biodiesel is the only viable alternative fuel for a US of A concerned with energy independence, keeping fuel costs down (biodiesel is cheaper than diesel), reducing emissions across the board compared to both diesel and CNG/LNG (biodiesel is cleaner from cradle to grave than both), and creating domestic jobs that dont ravage our environment while burying record untaxed US $$ profits overseas in tax havens.

  5. 5. Joseph Darling [ April 15, 2014 @ 10:14AM ]

    I am constantly amazed by the lack of knowledge regarding natural gas as a motor fuel and the ignorance generated by the lack of knowledge which is then professed by corporate leaders that should know better. That influences the media and then generates some of the comments as in response to this article, Bio fuels are not an alternative fuel unless you stick your head in the sand like Mr. Bernhard and still believe diesel is also an alternative fuel. The two biggest oxymorons, clean diesel and clean coal. We need to relieve our dependence on crude oil as much as possible and natural gas is our best hope to do so. There will always be a need for products derived from crude oil but hopefully not the dependence of today or the past.

  6. 6. Greg Foreman [ April 15, 2014 @ 06:08PM ]

    Yes, there is a realistic alternative fuel to diesel AND ironically, the product is synthesized from natural gas, GTL. The fuel is superior to diesel without the inefficiencies of natural gas. GTL produces higher Cetane, 157 vs 100, rating than diesel providing more effective and efficient engine power, equivalent if not better fuel mileage without any modifications to the current diesel engine configurations, negating the 75K to 150K additional purchase price for a natural gas fueled vehicle.

    In addition, the fuel produces 50-75% less pollution than diesel. Some reports have indicated that the pollution generated from GTL fired engines is low enough to negate the necessity of DEF. GTL produces 0 PPM sulfur and aromatics, compared to 100 PPM for diesel, 60 PPM air toxins compared with 100 PPM for diesel, 70 PPM versus 100 PPM nitrous oxide, and has a Cetane rating of 157 versus 100 for diesel.

    Now, please don't think GTL is a “pie in the sky” or a "snake oil" fuel the likes of natural gas. Shell Oil has been producing GTL in Malaysia since 1995. Shell began operations of the worlds largest GTL refinery in Qatar, the Pearl, in June 2011 and produces 120,000 barrel(not gallons) of GTL daily. Furthermore, SASOIL currently has an 11-14 billion dollar plant under construction in West Lake, Louisiana to ultimately produce 96,000 barrels of GTL daily by the end of 2019. GTL is the “replacement” fuel of the future for all aspects of the logistics industry.

    I just can't help but wonder the fate of all those natural gas vehicles when GTL comes on line and replaces diesel and natural gas because of their inefficiencies and drawbacks. I'm sure a secondary “snake oil” market will emerge providing “cost effective” conversion packages converting all those useless natural gas engines to more efficient burning productive GTL power plants.

  7. 7. Joseph Darling [ April 15, 2014 @ 07:25PM ]

    Let's review, We are going to "synthesize" this new fuel from "natural gas" which is abundant. Which is the snake oil? Shell oil has been promising this wonder product for 20 years and has failed to deliver. And what will the cost per gallon of this wonder product be? Your previous uneducated rant about cng speaks to your lack of knowledge and practicality on this subject.

  8. 8. Greg Foreman [ April 16, 2014 @ 07:20AM ]

    When a major oil producer and refiner such as Shell is producing GTL to the tune of 120K barrels or 5.04 million gallons daily I would hardly consider GTL “snake oil”. Corporations such as Shell, Exxon, etc, do not expend billions of dollars-the Pearl Refinery cost over 14 billions dollars, the SASOIL refinery in West Lake, LA, will cost roughly the same-to produce “snake oil”. GTL is a tried and proven product being produced and utilized around the globe. GTL is just one of many alternatives offering a realistic, cost effective, operational efficient alternative.

    An equally promising technology would require the reconfiguration of a trucks power plant to mimic that utilized by the RR industry since the early fifties—diesel-electric systems. Such systems would utilize a much smaller diesel engine which would run at much lower RPM's, burning less fuel, producing far less pollution, to a generator producing electricity which would be transferred to in hub electric motors powering the truck.

    The real “snake oil” proponents are those advocates within the alternative energy community who insist on “reinventing the wheel” and throwing the “baby out with the bathwater” dam what may and dam the cost. Their ignorance of the facts is only exceeded by their arrogant refusal to even consider current fuel technology that would allow the industry to bridge the gap between the fuels currently used to the fuels technology currently available to the future fuels that will ultimately power the logistics industry.

    I can't help but wonder if such individuals are not “in bed” financially with certain segments of the alternative energy or are such individuals just plain stupid.

  9. 9. Tom [ April 23, 2014 @ 05:25AM ]

    Why is it that everyone looks at natural gas and not propane as an alternative fuel? It is cheaper than diesel or gasoline. It gets the same number of miles per gallon on propane as it does on gasoline. And now propane production is so large due to increased natural gas supply that our country actually exports it because it is surplus supply. Infrastructure is cheaper, easier and quicker to install.


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