Goodbye, gasoline: Some vehicle fleets make switch to compressed natural gas power

As companies with vehicle fleets cope with the rising cost of fuel, a decision that Delano-based Randy’s Environmental Services made last fall looks like a smart move.

In October, Randy’s became the first Minnesota waste-disposal company to replace some of its diesel trucks with compressed natural gas-powered (CNG) vehicles.

At least three other Twin Cities-area waste haulers are also making the switch: Dick’s Sanitation of Lakeville, Waste Management of Blaine and Ace Sanitation of Ramsey.

Rather than paying around $4 a gallon for diesel fuel, Randy’s spends $1.50 to $2 less per gallon to run its CNG trucks, said operations manager Jim Wollschlager.

Along with lower costs per gallon, federal mandates for additional emission-control equipment on diesel vehicles have gradually made it cheaper to use the cleaner-burning CNG fuel. Those emission-control devices also have the effect of reducing fuel efficiency, Wollschlager said.

The trucks have Kevlar-reinforced tanks filled with natural gas pressurized to 3,100 pounds per square inch. Trucks can also run on liquid natural gas (LNG), although it is not as widely used as CNG.

Twenty-one trucks in Randy’s fleet of 102 run on CNG, and the business plans to gradually replace its entire fleet with CNG vehicles, Wollschlager said. Randy’s invested $1.3 million to install a CNG fueling station at its Delano facility, where trucks can refuel overnight. A 10-minute “quick fill” option also is available.

In the process, Randy’s mechanics have been fine-tuning the CNG trucks’ gear-ratios to improve performance and mileage to match diesel-powered vehicles’ performance, he said.

Natural gas vehicles “have been taking our industry by storm,” said Matt Walter, marketing director for the Dodge Center, Minn.-based McNeilus Cos., the nation’s largest maker of garbage and cement trucks. Within five years, the company expects about half the trucks it makes will run on CNG.

Trash haulers whose customers are on fixed-rate plans or city contracts like the price stability of fuel that comes from a regulated utility, Walter said. With CNG fuel costing about $1.50 less, “it all adds up to a really good equation for them.”

It’s also well-suited for trash haulers because they typically fuel their trucks at the same location (their garages) every day and drive predictable routes, unlike delivery trucks, for example.

“Garbage trucks also have a lot of real estate” he said. Specifically, “a big, steel box” with lots of room on the roof for mounting the larger fuel tanks, which run about 6 feet long and 4 feet wide. That’s because the natural gas occupies more tank space than the comparable amount of liquid fuel and requires more complicated equipment.

To address the storage issue, Maplewood-based 3M Co. recently announced a partnership with Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second-largest gas producer, to develop lightweight fuel tanks for natural gas vehicles.

Nationwide, only about 140,000 natural gas vehicles are in use, according to a trade association. The major obstacle to rapid expansion of CNG vehicle fleets is the lack of natural gas fueling stations; there are only about 1,000 nationwide, according to the trade group Natural Gas Vehicles for America.

Houston-based CenterPoint Energy operates what may be the only public CNG fueling station in the Twin Cities, at 501 W. 61st St. in Minneapolis. Jon Williams, manager of energy sales for CenterPoint, sees a lot of potential for CNG vehicles, even though the utility doesn’t have any plans to build more fueling stations of its own.

“We could envision some of our commercial customers building CNG fueling stations on our line,” he said. “We believe this is going to expand; we’ll see it first with heavy duty commercial fleets because the economics are there.”

CenterPoint also operates a liquid natural gas production plant in Burnsville, which can provide the bulk of LNG to those using it as a transportation fuel.

In other states CenterPoint serves such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, CNG stations have been added to its distribution system.

Another Minnesota business, Crookston-based New Flyer Industries, builds CNG-fueled transit buses, which have not yet captured major market share nationwide largely because of the lack of fueling stations. In 1999, the Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which serves several southern suburbs, tried several CNG buses but eventually replaced them with diesel vehicles, said spokesperson Robin Selvig.

In 2010, Metro Transit evaluated the possibility of using CNG buses as part of its 900-vehicle fleet but concluded that the cost of installing CNG fueling stations wouldn’t justify the move, said spokesman John Siqveland.

Still, the infrastructure is starting to grow. In February, two CNG filling stations opened at truck stops in Wisconsin, one partly financed by Bayport, Minn.-based Andersen Windows to serve trucks from its Menominee, Wis., distribution center.

The American Natural Gas Association producers and the American Gas Association have collaborated on a “Drive Natural Gas Initiative” to actively support and promote the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.

In March, President Barack Obama spoke at Daimler’s natural gas-powered truck plant in North Carolina and announced bigger tax breaks for business owners who purchase alternative fuel vehicles.​

This article was first published by Finance & Commerce.

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