Questions: My business uses gas guzzling transport trucks to ship our products from one place to another. I’m considering switching my fleet over to natural gas but I’m not entirely convinced.

Answer: That’s a tough decision! Switching to natural gas, it seems, is a growing trend among North American businesses that rely on large fleets of trucks to transport products over long distances. Predicted to reach up to 14 billion cubic feet in the United States by 2030, the demand for large truck and fleet applications using natural gas is constantly on the rise. Thankfully, Canada, a country rich in natural gas, won’t have a problem filling orders. In fact, the Vancouver Sun recently published an article suggesting that B.C has over 100 years of supply at the current production rate.

So, should your business consider making the switch? Here’s what you need to know about running your fleet on natural gas.

Natural gas is greener than diesel

Did you know that approximately 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions are currently driven by transportation? The Canadian Gas Association claims that while heavy diesel trucks, garbage trucks and taxis make up only 4% of vehicles on the road, they account for 30% of greenhouse gas emissions from on-road vehicles in Canada.

While natural gas is by no means a renewable energy, it is much cleaner than gasoline or diesel. In fact, trucks switching to natural gas, as pointed out by the Conference Board of Canada, could help lower GHG by 50 tonnes per truck per years in Canada alone.

What is the cost of switching to natural gas?

The cost of switching to natural gas has long-term benefits and short-term drawbacks. In the short-term businesses will be spending more to invest in an LNG (liquified natural gas) tractor, costing businesses between $80,000 and $90,000 (CAD).

In the long-term however, there are serious savings to be had. While some sources say that fuel costs for filling up on natural gas can be lessened by 15%-30% in comparison to diesel at current prices, the Calgary Herald suggests that fuel costs could lessen by 40%, cutting transportation costs nearly in half. Breaking things down a little more, a release from the Conference Board of Canada via Canada Newswire says that converting transportation fleets to natural gas could generate savings up to $150,000 per truck over a 10 year period. Vijay Gill, co-author of Cheap Enough? Making the Switch from Diesel Fuel to Natural Gas adds: “Our models indicate that while the capital costs are high, the savings from lower fuel costs make natural gas an economically viable fuel for the trucking sector. Trucking firms could reap significant net benefits in operating costs while also reducing their environmental impact.”

In order to make the transition easier, says the Herald, provinces like Quebec and B.C are providing provincial government incentives to help companies offset the cost of an LNG tractor. In certain provinces LNG is exempt from what is the equivalent of a road diesel excise tax, although it’s uncertain how long that will last if the use of natural gas continues to increase.

Liquefied Natural Gas vs. Compressed Natural Gas

In order to be used for transportation, natural gas must be compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG).

LNG, liquefied natural gas, is the preferred source of power transportation is because it outperforms CNG when it comes to range. Unfortunately, LNG reduces the life-cycle energy balance and adds to fuel costs due to the cost of the liquefaction process itself. While LNG tractors are heavier than CNG (a problem for companies whose payloads are already approaching the legal highway limit), CNG tanks can be  heavier and take up more space (reducing space on the truck for paying freight) says Commercial Appeal.

In terms of fueling stations, LNG stations cost less than half as much as the CNG equivalent to build.

Building the infrastructure to support a rise in natural gas

Fueling stations, will prove one of the biggest challenges when it comes to introducing fleets of transport trucks running on natural gas in Canada.

According to the Calgary Herald, despite recent announcements from some of the big names in the oil industry to start investing in LNG and CNG stations throughout Canada, the country is very far behind the U.S when it comes to building up the infrastructure to support the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.

Shell already has plans to add LNG fueling stations to 100 truck stops with Travel Centres of America while Clean Energy Fuels Corp. will be supplying American franchises of the Flying J with 150 stations by the end of 2013. According to Commercial Appeal, Clean Energy will be spending $225 million in total to finish 70 stations by the end of 2012 and another 80 by 2013, all based along long-haul truck routes in an effort to create a natural gas support network for American businesses. Let’s hope that the infrastructure in Canada can catch up; and quick.

Questions or comments about natural gas powered trucking? Leave them below!

image credit: AlainG