Skip to comments.Utilities Want To Offer Natural Gas Truck Refueling, Competitors Object
Posted on 12/12/2013 6:20:02 AM PST by thackney
Trucking fleet operators in the Northwest are showing growing interest in filling up with natural gas instead of diesel. Two reasons: natural gas is cheaper and burns cleaner than the gasoline or diesel that goes into most vehicles. The problem is there are very few filling stations for natural gas.
Cleaner air, lower costs, limited infrastructure
Take delivery truck driver Corey Schaller. He has one last stop before he can call it a day. He has to refill the gas tank of the beer truck he drives for Kent, Washington-based Click Wholesale Distributing. But there are just a few places he can go. That's because this otherwise normal-looking Ford box truck has been converted to run on compressed natural gas -- or CNG.
One thing you may notice right away about CNG is the price at the pump. It's quite good -- the equivalent of $2.14 per gallon good.
And Schaller says he's glad he no longer spews diesel exhaust on his rounds delivering beer, wine and spirits.
"I feel like I'm helping in some way, at least the person driving behind me."
Schaller's bosses say cleaner air and the lower fuel price are key reasons they aspire to convert the company's entire fleet. Engine maintenance cost savings are another plus. By early next year, Click Wholesale CEO Jim Florio hopes to have seven of his 20 trucks fueled by natural gas.
"Along the way, we've been told that you're going to be the guinea pigs for this," says Florio. "We felt that way a little bit. But our drivers have come back and said, 'I feel really good about driving this truck.'"
Florio says the lack of refueling stations is a hurdle for wider adoption. Washington has seven public CNG stations, all in the central Puget Sound region. Oregon has just three public CNG filling stations; Idaho has two.
"We're all very limited," says Florio. "Especially if a station goes down in a core area and somebody is running low on fuel, you may not have enough fuel in the tank to get from where you're at to another station that is available."
Florio says there needs to be a stronger refueling infrastructure to get "to the next level."
Enter the big gas utilities
"As we saw our customer interest grow, we said this is sort of a natural place for us to provide a service that would help our customers," says Ben Farrow, Puget Sound Energy's manager of natural gas and electric development. He sees a potential market of "thousands" of vehicles which could plausibly be converted to natural gas just in western Washington.
PSE and the Portland-based utility NW Natural have approached their respective regulators for permission to sell on-site fueling stations to fleet operators. Spokane-based Avista Utilities says it's interested in this too and may follow.
But third-party installers of natural gas filling stations cry "unfair competition!"
"We feel to have utilities enter into the natural gas refueling infrastructure market creates an anti-competitive situation because of the advantages regulated utilities have as a result of their monopoly status," argues Warren Mitchell, chairman of a nationwide station builder and operator called Clean Energy Fuels.
Mitchell lists advantages like captive customers, cheaper access to capital, and the ability to cherry pick customers based on inside knowledge of usage.
"This is going beyond the meter," he says. "It is a private business function. It is best implemented by private business," argues Mitchell.
"Choices in that marketplace are a good thing," responds Farrow. "We don't want to compete unfairly."
In regulatory filings, NW Natural and Puget Sound Energy say they plan to run their vehicle fueling programs as discrete, self-sustaining operations. The PSE filing to its state utilities commission asserts, "Because customers served under this service will pay the full incremental costs associated with the provision of this service to their site, the addition of this optional service offering should have no negative cost impact on other ratepayers."
Competing fueling station providers -- including Clean Energy -- subsequently lodged formal objections. A joint letter to Washington state regulators says that if the incumbent utility is allowed to expand, it "will discourage competitors from investing in the Washington natural gas vehicle refueling infrastructure market, undermining the development of the very market the (proposal) claims to promote."
State regulators in Oregon will decide later this month whether to allow NW Natural to expand into the new line of business. A decision from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission on PSE's request is expected next year.
A spokesman for Intermountain Gas Company says the Boise-based utility is content to watch from the sidelines for now. "We're not sure we want to be fuel retailers to the general public. We want to facilitate third parties to do that," says Intermountain's Byron Defenbach.
Separately, several private companies are building liquefied natural gas filling stations along Northwest interstates. The super cooled natural gas from these pumps can fuel specially modified big rigs.
This niche has not inspired the same competitive ire. Northwest gas utilities have limited their expansion plans to CNG and have not indicated interest in the LNG fueling infrastructure market.
The high cost to build filling stations and to convert vehicles to run on natural gas has narrowed the customer base mostly to large fleet operators with predictable routes or return-to-base operations for now.
Only one major automaker sells a factory-built CNG car, the Honda Civic Natural Gas. Its fuel tank takes up about half the space normally found in the trunk.
Are these guys paying road tax?
Does it take more space/tank size?
Safety of tank from compression/explosions?
It won’t gel like diesel will in say, Wyoming, SD, ND, Alaska, so that’s positive.
EPA will be against it as it would help the economy (EPA are 0bummer’s commie foot soldiers)
I’m all for it.
Caveat, if refineries could focus on gasoline and not diesel, wouldn’t that make gasoline cheaper as they would reduce blends as diesel is surely one cracking blend?
CNG has less “firepower” than Diesel, right? I think its in the 90,000 BTU range (Therm) vs. Diesel with 140,000 BTU per gallon.
I don’t know about big trucks, but for pick up trucks the size of the tank is similar. For gas vehicles, you can run gas as well.
The explosion risks are different, as the Cong would disperse differently than liquid fuel. But the tanks are designed to withstand all conceivable impacts. Of course, nothing is 100% safe.
The performance is similar to normal fuel.
For cars, you CAN get a compressor installed in your home, but fill ups would take longer because your home natural gas would need to be compressed.
Conversions of normal vehicles are still cost prohibitive. I was close to being able to make it work, but you need to dive about 40,000 miles per year to make it work.
Are you talking about gas or gas?
The energy density is somewhere around 26 MJ/L for LNG vs 36MJ/L for diesel...what do you bet the conversion in the chart above is by volume? If you convert by energy density, diesel and LNG look to be priced exactly the same (or pretty close).
Also, what is keeping this company from just buying a tanker full of fuel and refueling at their warehouse?
CLNE should look at this as a business opportunity rather than a threat. Gas utility companies seem like good places to build a Clean Energy filling station.
OK America, how many electric power providers have electric vehicles in their company fleets? How many CNG and propane vehicles in the gas company fleets?
“Are these guys paying road tax?”
If not, one could make the case that tax added is going to make this fuel non competitive and thus who in their right mind is going to continue development as a primary fuel?
The point in comment 3 regarding plain gasoline without all the regional bee ess formulations has a lot of merit.
I suspect that there are dozens of zoning, fire, and other safety regs that would apply. In leased facilities, there are probably also lease restrictions.
There is a "combined cycle" engine that is purported to be MORE efficient that basic diesel. Such an engine uses both natgas and diesel. Double injectors on each cylinder. The natgas injection provides most of the BTU's for driving, and a very small amount of diesel injected retains the "compression/ignition" of the diesel and obviates the need for a spark ignition source.
I suspect that for future "big rigs" that such engines will become the drive option of choice.
I suspect they are waiting for the infrastructure to get built out and more commitment by the public & business to buy the vehicles before they start hitting on the taxes.
Safety of tank from compression/explosions?
The tanks have a lot of strength due to needing to contain thousands of pounds per square inch of pressure. They are subject to more rigerous requirements for crash testing as well. Most these days are carbon fiber but metal ones have been in use on our roads for several decades.
Caveat, if refineries could focus on gasoline and not diesel, wouldnt that make gasoline cheaper as they would reduce blends as diesel is surely one cracking blend?
I don't see this reducing any blends. Refineries are not going to be economically able to eliminate diesel production. All refining produces both. Companies spend significant money to change the ratio but it is tough to eliminate. I do know of 4 refineries that will produce all diesel but they essentially first produce some gasoline then continue to break it down into gas for heating fuel at the refinery.
I’d rather see a trimming down of all gas blends than losing diesel. I can’t remember the numbers or exactly how it goes, but it was something where if you combine all the different blends of gas from all 50 states, you’d get like 30+ blends and supposedly 20+ of them are from California. Drop that 30+ to 3-5 and you’d surely see a drop in fuel prices.
If you look at the second chart Thackney posted, the price per megajoule is listed, and CNG comes in about $11/MJ cheaper.
Two high pressure injectors is too much added complexity over just firing with plugs. Most of the dual mode units I have seen online (never have seen a dual mode in person), are conversions that just had the diesel around already, so why rip it out.
Turbochargers and direct CNG injection with spark ignition is the way to go, IMO. Most diesel designs already take a turbo into account, and most modern ones even have wastegates that can be computer controlled (or already are).
I was jealous of a friend in the Silicon Valley area in california. He bought a well-used police CrownVic with CNG conversion. It needed a valve job on purchase (did not have the hard face valves that last better with CNG), but now he pays a pittance for fuel costs, and that area has plenty of CNG stations.
This isn't a "dual mode" unit. There is only one "mode" with with a tiny amount of diesel replacing spark ignition.
Note that I said for NEW rigs, which would come with the new fuel(s) cycle installed.
As to whether having two higher pressure injectors is "too much added complexity", I think that will depend on the efficiency and price differential.
“How many CNG and propane vehicles in the gas company fleets?”
Here in NorCal, P.G. & E. the public utility, routinely powers their maintenance vehicles with CNG. Lots of public transit busses run on the stuff too. I have a Honda portable generator that can run on gasoline, Propane, or Natural Gas (not CNG). The conversion use Propane/NG cost a couple hundred bucks.