Trucking industry mulls natural gas conversion

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 134 views 

Rising diesel prices and a federal mandate to reduce fuel consumption is causing trucking firms — private and public — to consider the benefits of a natural gas fleet conversion.

Equipment costs and access to fueling stations have long been considered the biggest obstacles for natural gas. But that hasn’t stopped Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., one the nation’s largest private carriers, and United Parcel Services from tiptoeing toward conversion.

Finding access to fueling stations that sell liquid natural gas shouldn’t be a problem for too much longer. California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. recently unveiled an extensive network of natural gas fueling stations with the help of a  $150 million cash infusion from alternative fuel enthusiast T. Boone Pickens.

Jim Harger, chief marketing director for Clean Energy, said the closest station on tap for Northwest Arkansas is in Joplin, Mo., but along Interstate 40, he said stations are planned in Little Rock and West Memphis. Clean Energy will build 70 fueling stations this year with 80 more opening in 2013.

Harger said the stations are strategically spaced some 250 to 300 miles apart along the busiest trucking routes cross country and north to south. Clean Energy teamed up with Pilot and Flying J to add liquid natural gas pumps at existing sites. (Link here to a PDF document detailing the Clean Energy plan.)

The American Trucking Association supports Clean Energy’s effort to put infrastructure in place. There are tax credit bills in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, but ATA spokesman Glen Kedzie, said there is no guarantee trucking companies will get cash rebates for conversion.

Both pieces of legislation also offer tax credits to defray building costs associated with new fueling stations. He said with infrastructure moving ahead there is a good chance Congress will eventually provide a jump-start of some kind in the form of tax credits to further entice trucking firms.

Atlanta-based UPS has already converted 59 long-haul trucks that serve its Las Vegas and California hubs. Walmart is testing the use of liquid natural gas with its fleet in California, according to spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan. Walmart would not provide any other details about the ongoing tests.

Kedzie said California did offer a state tax credit for conversion that Walmart and UPS were able to get. Industry analysts say Walmart is asking its dedicated carriers to consider traditional fuel alternatives as the retail giant strives to continue its role as a sustainability leader.

Walmart operates the fourth large private trucking operation in the country with 6,543 tractors and 55,000 trailers that haul merchandise from 147 regional distribution centers to Walmart stores coast to coast, according to Trucking Topics.

“Given the size of Walmart’s fleet, we are striving to lead the industry in testing, piloting,and deploying a suite of clean technologies that will help us save money on diesel fuel, reduce air pollutants in the communities we serve,” Buchanan said.

Walmart sustainability is integrated into every part of its business, including the large trucking fleet. Since 2005 Buchanan said Walmart has improved fleet efficiency by 65%, but most of that savings came from taking trucks off the road. Those internal efforts netted $500 million in savings last year, she said.

Harger said large fleets based in Arkansas like a Walmart, Tyson Foods or FedEx could eventually have back lot fueling stations near their transportation hubs for regional use.

“We are always looking for ways to increase our fuel economy in our trucking operations, however it is too early for us to speculate on any alternative to diesel,” said Worth Sparkman, spokesman for Tyson Foods.

Tyson Foods operates 2,510 tractors and 6,300 trailers and is the nation’s eight largest private carrier on Transportation Topics top 100 list.

Lowell-based J.B.Hunt Transport Services Inc. is the nation’s fifth largest public carrier with more than 9,000 tractors and nearly 21,000 trailers, according to Transport Topics.

Hunt has been a pioneer in the area of environmentally friendly transportation and continues to look for new, creative ways to transport products in a safe, low-cost sustainable manner, according to its mission statement. Hunt declined comment on the issue of natural gas conversion.

Harger said with the infrastructure being added, the biggest hurdle for conversion in 2012 is still the cost.

“Right now there is a $65,000 cost difference between diesel and LNG models. Cummins will release a new model this year that could be a game changer for long-haul carriers like Hunt. It should be priced in line with diesels and offer about $1.50 per gallon in fuel savings,” Harger said.