Diesel is ‘king’ of fuels while natural gas touted as cleaner fuel, electricity on horizon

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 223 views 

Diesel remains the top fuel for the trucking industry, and before other fuels such as electricity gain a foothold in the industry, it will require major infrastructure improvements, a transportation equipment analyst said.

“Electricity is not going to be an overnight event,” said Ken Vieth, senior partner and general manager of ACT Research.

Fuels must be available nationally, not just is some locations, and based on energy costs, “diesel is king.” Vieth was one of the speakers in a recent ACT Research webinar on fuels, and representatives from the diesel, natural gas and electric vehicle sectors discussed the benefits of each fuel.

Cost isn’t the only reason diesel is king, said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of Diesel Technology Forum. “More energy is packed into a gallon of diesel than other fuels.” It’s also the most widely used fuel, as 97% of class 8 trucks, or the big rigs that haul the trailers, use it.

In the past 25 years, new technology in diesel engines has led to a more than 95% reduction in nitrogen oxide, or NOx, and particulate matter emissions. More than 30% of trucks on the road are model 2011 or newer and equipped with fuel saving and reduced emissions technology. An average class 8 truck saves $2,600 annually on fuel, Schaeffer said. However, the cost to cut the last 4% of particulate matter emissions is expected to cost $14 billion.

“Diesel technology is one of continuous improvement,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy Super Truck program has set a target of 57% thermal efficiency for the next heavy-duty diesel projects. Hybrid technology and renewable diesel fuel have led to continued improvements in efficiency. A diesel and electric hybrid truck operating under a geofence can automatically switch to electric as it enters the area within the geofence and back to diesel once it exits.

With technology, many competing priorities come into play in regard to fuel efficiency, said Schaeffer, adding that platooning could also lead to improved fuel efficiency. Ten years ago, people were wondering which fuel would become the winner.

“We still find diesel as the No. 1 fuel for trucking,” he said.

Chad Lindholm, vice president of sales for Clean Energy, said natural gas trucks have served the trucking industry for more than 15 years and operate on compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG) and renewable natural gas. The engine is the same whether the truck uses CNG or LNG.

“We are a cleaner fuel,” he said. “We are a domestic fuel.”

The use of natural gas trucks offers carriers an opportunity to earn new clients by offering a “green position,” Lindholm said. Natural gas trucks are prevalent in the solid waste hauling sector. If 30 diesel trucks, driving 2.5 million miles annually, were to switch to natural gas, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 4,536 metric tons per year. This is the same as removing 957 cars from the road.

More than 8,000 standard 12-liter engine trucks are in operation, and nearly 20 trucks with zero NOx 12-liter engines are operating, with dozens more soon to be on the road. Also, a 9-liter zero NOx engine truck is available, he said. A network to provide service and support for natural gas trucks is in place along with renewable natural gas fueling stations.

A natural gas truck costs about $45,000 more than a diesel truck, when including the $35,000 for a fuel storage system. But the cost is paid back in two to three years, based on the cost of the fuel compared to diesel, he said. With each $1,000 spent on fuel, a natural gas truck can drive 700 more miles than a diesel truck.

Jim Castelaz, founder and CEO of Motiv Power Systems, said his company supplies the engine of the electric vehicle and to explain electricity as a fuel is a complex topic as it pushes the “energy decision upstream.” Electric energy can come from coal-fired plants to solar panels. Battery prices for electric vehicles “have dropped faster than predicted,” he said. The payback period for an electric commercial vehicle is three years. But the challenge with electric vehicles is infrastructure.

Electric infrastructure is “everywhere” when it comes to charging a vehicle overnight; however, infrastructure to fast-charge vehicles “is still expensive,” he said. Some solutions to the latter would be in-route charging and a “battery backup charging oasis.” One of the advantages of electric over other fuel types is maintenance costs are about one-third less compared to other fuels, Castelaz said. The battery life of an electric vehicle will last between eight to 10 years.

Vieth said he’s heard natural resources such as cobalt, which have been used to build batteries, is becoming scarce, and there might not be enough for commercial vehicles come 2020. But Castelaz said cobalt is being “phased out” of battery production and being replaced with table salt and nickel.

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