AS COMPANIES THROUGHOUT the commercial trucking industry look for ways to limit fuel costs and operate more sustainably, the spotlight is beginning to shift more often to natural gas – particularly renewable natural gas – and its potential benefits to fleets today and in the future.
Advocates of natural gas believe it is poised to make major inroads into heavy-duty commercial trucking.
“It’s a solution that’s dependable and proven and it’s available today,” said Chad Lindholm, senior vice president, Clean Energy Fuels, North America’s largest provider of renewable natural gas for the transportation industry. “It’s commercialized and has not only a growing and robust fueling network across the country, but also a robust maintenance network across the country for various engine platforms and vehicles.”
P.J. Zonsius, director of LCI Business Development for Gas South, said past concerns with natural gas for the commercial trucking industry included worries about limited options on the engines. That is becoming less of an issue, he said. Lindholm agreed.
“What we’ve seen over the last decade is a vast improvement in overall performance and reliability of the various engine platforms, running from a 6.7-liter to a 9-liter to a 12-liter and to soon what will be a 15-liter offering in dedicated renewable gas technology,” Lindholm said.
The 15-liter natural gas engine will be introduced into the North American market by Cummins. Gladstein, Neandross & Associates CEO Erik Neandross told Natural Gas Intelligence that the new engine marked a crucial new step.
“This is a big deal; it opens up a much larger portion of the market to use natural gas, portions that were previously underserved by the 12-liter engine as it had limited power,” Neadross said. “The 15-liter engine really opens up a larger portion of the heavy-duty, over-the-road truck market to use natural gas.”
Lindholm said the growing number of fleets successfully running routes on natural gas demonstrates a strengthening foothold in the commercial truck market.
“There are hundreds of fleets out there in the vocational, pick-up-and-delivery and regional trucking segments that are having great experiences day in and day out, and they put millions of miles on these various engines to prove that they can do the job,” Lindholm said. “At the end of the day, you have to have the ability to move your product or goods from point A to point B in a reliable way. We’ll do that in a sustainable way – and reduce the overall operating costs while doing it.”
Lindholm believes renewable natural gas holds particular promise going forward. RNG can be used as a transportation fuel in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). On-road transportation tends to use CNG, according to Natural Gas Intelligence.
“We as an industry and certainly as a company leading this industry are doubling down on renewable natural gas,” Lindholm said. “We believe that we’ve just scratched the surface in terms of bringing that product to the marketplace, opening up new supply channels to deliver what has the ability and the potential to be billions of gallons of renewable gas into the marketplace across North America in the years to come.”
THE SUSTAINABILITY PUSH
High diesel prices provide an economic incentive to look closer at natural gas right now, Zonsius said. However, the push to prioritize sustainability that is common across all industries perhaps is offering the strongest motivation for companies to explore natural gas as an option.
“Every conversation that I’m in with companies that have a significant emissions footprint – that’s what we’re talking about,” said Zonsius.
In particular, renewable natural gas, which is made from organic waste rather than through drilling, offers major environmental advantages. “Today, you can achieve zero carbon emissions, and in most cases negative carbon emissions, by utilizing renewable gas in your vehicle operation,” Lindholm said.
Renewable natural gas captures the methane from waste streams, such as from manure, a landfill or wastewater treatment, Zonsius said. Therefore, RNG both removes methane (a major pollutant) from the environment and proves an environmentally friendly source of fuel.
“There’s a big emissions reduction, and it can actually make that fuel carbon negative,” Zonsius said.
Zonsius believes that the combination of economic and environmental incentives and the political and regulatory environment will drive CNG and other alternative fuel options forward. Meanwhile, the resources to support natural gas are expanding and strengthening, he said.
“Station technology has improved, the tanks that hold CNG have improved – they’ve gotten lighter, which was a big concern early on,” Zonsius said. “And companies in that space, such as Clean Energy Fuels, are coming out with creative financing options that help to level the playing field as far as the cost to buy CNG trucks compared to your standard diesel ones.”
One major development in Georgia was the opening in March 2022 of a compressed natural gas fueling station at the Port of Savannah, one of the largest ports in the United States. The station serves both local CNG fleets and renewable natural gas fueled vehicles, including offering high-capacity dispensers for fueling Class 8 trucks. The station also will be used as a staging area for Marlin Gas, a Chesapeake Utilities subsidiary, to fill CNG transport trailers used in providing virtual pipeline services.
Infrastructure to support natural gas trucks is growing, but needs to continue to grow, Zonsius said.
“From the standpoint of infrastructure, there are 1,500 stations, but there still needs to be more stations to get companies more comfortable with natural gas, especially when you look at long-haul trucking,” Zonsius said.
Early adopters of technology so far are largely focused on local routes. Those include delivery-focused entities, such as Amazon and UPS, as well as Waste Management, which runs its entire West Coast fleet on renewable natural gas.
“Small businesses need to be comfortable in making the purchase,” Zonsius said. “It’s really important to educate that group about what the advantages are, to work with them to make sure they’re comfortable, and to make sure that the infrastructure is there. In order for that trucker with one truck to switch over to CNG, he’s got to be confident in the technology, he’s got to be confident in the fuel savings, and he’s got to be confident at the end of the day that they can get from point A to point B.”
Change is difficult, particularly in an uncertain climate, and Lindholm notes that fleet operators are contending with an array of challenges already without looking at something “quote-unquote new,” he said. Still, a rapidly changing landscape could lead to a stronger embrace of natural gas and a more diverse mix of fuel use in the commercial truck marketplace.
“At the end of the day, we believe that whether it’s diesel fuel, renewable diesel fuel, renewable natural gas, electric or hydrogen, there’s going to be a place for all these technologies,” Lindholm said. “And the right fuel or technology for the right application and the right lanes and the right loads for fleets, I think is something that is going to be more prominent in the years to come.”