Energy independence: Trucking companies see benefits of using natural gas
Several of the country's tractor-trailer fleets slowly are converting to natural gas instead of diesel in a move some say is essential to helping the country reduce its dependence on imported oil.
Phil Crofts expects his investment in natural gas-powered trucks to eventually save his company money.
For now, however, he is happy that it allows him to use an American fuel with fewer emissions while also making his customers happy.
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“In the past, the trucking industry has been a rat race to be the cheapest,” said Crofts, marketing director for Chicago-based Dillon Transport. “Now, if you can offer the latest, greatest, cleanest way to carry products, that rings a bell with people. If you service the best-in-class companies, they want to be clean. Another five cents a ton is not going to break them, but if they can get some good public relations for what they're doing to clean up Tampa or Dallas-Fort Worth, companies want to talk about that.”
Dillon Transport recently bought 25 liquefied natural gas-powered trucks and has ordered another 50 for delivery next year. The company has about 400 trucks out of regional yards in Texas and Ohio.
As an early adopter, Dillon is still dealing with several issues the industry hopes to soon work out.
“We've had some problems with the electrical systems,” Crofts said. “The engines also require expensive spark plugs, and we have to change the oil more often with more expensive oil. Also our maintenance facility has to be equipped with gas sensors and no-spark light switches.”
Dillon is using 8.9-liter natural gas engines, which are smaller than the company would have preferred. Larger 15-liter engines also are available, but those are more expensive and more powerful than Dillon needs. The company plans to trade its engines in for better-fitting 12-liter engines when they are available early next year.
“That's going to give us better performance, and we think our mileage will improve,” Crofts said. “That little tiny engine has to work really hard. With the little engine, we're limited to flat areas like Dallas, Oklahoma and Ohio. This bigger engine will let us go over mountains.”
The biggest challenge with natural gas vehicles is the availability of fueling stations across the country, Crofts said.
The natural gas industry is working to fix that problem. T. Boone Pickens created California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. with the goal of covering the country's main trucking routes with LNG stations at least every 300 miles. Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy contributed at least $150 million to the effort, and Clean Energy has since partnered with Flying J to build 98 stations.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc recently announced its own plans for LNG stations.
The natural gas trucking industry is poised to grow quickly because the nationwide network of stations is almost complete, the truck engine manufactures are set to release the 12-liter engines and because oil and diesel prices remain high.