How Fleets Are Making A Success of CNG

As interest in the environmental benefits of cleaner fuels and cost savings over diesel increases, fleets across North America are taking the plunge and making the investments needed to change how they power their vehicles, with natural gas a popular choice.

The switch away from diesel is not as simple as it could be, however, and the very first step towards successfully using natural gas as a vehicle fuel is of course making the right choice as to which form of the fuel – CNG or LNG – is right for your business.

So far, there has been a fairly clear trend in the applications the two different types of fuel are used for, with CNG emerging as the predominant choice for light and medium size applications, and local urban fleets such as refuse vehicles and delivery trucks. Additionally, the size of the fleet operated is seen as crucial to making the economics work. Fleet sizes of 75 or over, that tend to use a lot of fuel, are generally regarded as seeing the most benefit from switching to CNG – the more diesel you displace, the more you save. The availability of government incentives, of course, can also be decisive.

But once the change is made, it would be unwise to think that it’s all smooth sailing once the business plan has been approved, the fuelling points are put in place and the staff are all trained. So what are some of the lessons that can be learned from companies that have benefitted from the switch to CNG?

For Paulina Leung, vice president Development at the Canadian recycling and waste solutions company Emterra, it was important not to be put off by the early problems such as the adverse conditions created by last winter’s low temperatures. Rather, along with Clean Energy and Cummins Westport, the company put a lot of effort into understanding the problems it caused, and working out solutions.

“Our very first deployment was back in 2012. It was one of the most challenging projects that hopefully we will ever have in terms of NGV deployment,” Paulina told FC Gas Intelligence.

“In Winnipeg, Manitoba it gets to -40 or -50 degrees Celsius in the winter. It was Clean Energy’s first station in that kind of climate, so there was an element of risk. I’m happy to say that the station has not had any issues, but on the truck side we and our truck suppliers learned a lot. We bought the Cummins ISLG engine, and Cummins thought that our difficulties with the weather were an isolated incident, but because of the polar vortex in North America this past winter, they realized that this problem of how the trucks operate in a cold weather climate was going to have to be dealt with on a big-picture level.”

The learning process, then, has to be something that happens in close collaboration with suppliers – a point reiterated by Tim Ozinga, director of communications at Ozinga Bros., a Mokena, Illinois-based concrete and transportation solutions company. For Ozinga Bros., the challenge was fuel capacity.

“We were able to work with the truck manufacturers themselves to make sure that the fuel capacity on the trucks would allow them to operate the typical day that the diesel trucks did,” said Tim. “There have not been too many surprises, at least not on a major scale. There have been a lot of little growing pains, such as getting used to a new fuel source, a little tweaking here and there – but we were able to work with the engine manufacturers and truck manufacturers to get all the bugs out.”

Working together with suppliers to overcome problems is one thing, but another crucial aspect is making sure that this knowledge is something learned by the whole team involved in operations, says Tim.

“You have to educate the operators of the trucks, learning what best practices are. They’re very responsive depending on the drive type, in terms of the fuel economy you’re getting. There’s a lot of training involved and learning how to operate this new equipment, how to fuel the trucks, etc. So that was kind of a learning curve for the operators.”

Before operations have even started, however, the building of a refueling station itself is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when switching to CNG. Along with the cost of construction, a number of other challenges must be overcome, and again, learning from others who have had similar experiences is a must.

Kelly Reagan is fleet administrator with the City of Columbus government in Ohio, which operates around 5,500 vehicles. “Do your homework”, Kelly advises. “Just because you want to build a CNG station doesn’t mean you can build it anywhere you want to build it. It takes a lot of research and a lot of work and a lot of learning, and we’ve learned from our other city partners that have been in the business on the west coast for decades, and who have shortened our learning curve for us considerably by teaching us the business.”

Returning to Paulina Leung at Emterra, having learnt the lessons of the company’s first deployment in that hard winter in Winnipeg, moving forward and making a success of CNG meant learning from the mistakes made and bearing them in mind when setting up the firm’s two later deployments. “We have a good sense of the resource requirements now, and what expertise we will need. We have a very talented and experience group internally. Plus, we know who we need to bring in from outside to mitigate project risk,” Paula said.

Finally, the good news is, she says, that despite the element of competition, those companies using CNG are seeing the benefits that CNG could have for industries and communities as a whole, and are often willing to share their experiences.

As Paulina explains: “Usually companies are very guarded, but I feel that people who deploy natural gas products know that what they’re doing is developmental work ... I would say that right now, people are really willing to talk, even if they are in the same industry. Talk to other NGV owners and their managers. People are really willing to share their information, and that’s something kind of unique.”

The key to making CNG work as a fuel means simply talking to as many interested parties as possible, it seems – even competitors.