With approximately eight million heavy- and medium-weight trucks consuming three million barrels of oil a day, or nearly 15 percent of the United States’ total daily consumption, the trucking industry has a huge opportunity to make a lasting impact on oil dependance. A few recent developments point to a possible shift to truck fleets running on natural gas, which emits less CO2 than gasoline and diesel and is abundant here in the United States.
Perhaps the biggest news is that United Parcel Service is expanding its natural gas truck fleets. With plans to operate 700 new liquified natural gas vehicles (LNGs) across 10 states by the end of 2014, UPS is on the forefront of the trucking industry’s adoption of natural gas vehicles. Looking two years ahead, UPS aims to make natural gas vehicles the majority within their fleet of new heavy trucks. The shipping company has made an initial investment of more than $18 million to build fueling stations to support the new vehicles and continued expansion of the natural gas fleet. UPS already operates 112 LNG tractor trailers from fueling stations across the U.S. According to UPS Chief Sustainability Officer Scott Wicker, “Moving into L.N.G. is a means to get us onto what we see as the bridging fuel of the future and off of oil. It’s the right step for us, for our customers and for our planet.”
However, moving away from petroleum to natural gas is not an easy feat. Trucks that run on natural gas cost nearly double, and there are only a few gas stations with the specailized equipment to dispense natural gas. That being said, some leaders in the industry—with the budget that is—are realizing both the economical and social impact of this expansion. Truckers using natural gas vehicles can save as much as $1.50 a gallon and have an easier time meeting emission standards with the cleaner-burning gas.
Of course, the trucking industry cannot effect change without the right technology. Leading engine manufacterer Cummins has begun shipping new engines that make long runs on natural gas possible with a network of refueling stations across dozens of truck stops on stand by.
T. Boone Pickens, a board member of natural gas fueling company Clean Energy, predicts that a majority of the nation’s long-haul truck fleet will be fueled by natural gas in seven years because 70 percent of the 18-wheelers operate in defined regional areas, and a natural gas truck can drive 600 miles on a single fill-up. Other projections cited in this New York Times article are more conservative, however. The federal Energy Information Administration figures 34 percent of new vehicle sales will be heavy-duty natural gas vehicles by 2035. And Citigroup forecasts that by the end of the decade 30 percent of the heavy truck fleet would shift to natural gas. Finally, Roe C. East, general manager of the natural gas business at Cummins, projected natural gas could capture 10 percent of the heavy-duty truck market in North America in the next five years.
It’s obvious that projections are widely varied, just as transportation markets are, but one thing is clear—natural gas is gaining momentum in the trucking industry and will continue to be part of the solution to lessening our dependence on foreign oil.
At Sustainable America, we are committed to reducing oil usage for transportation in America by 50 percent by 2035. We plan to meet this goal by supporting a combination of solutions, including fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, and advanced biofuels and natural gas as transportation fuels. We are eager to monitor the progress of UPS and other major shipping companies taking the leap toward natural gas trucking fleets.
While natural gas is not a perfect or renewable fuel, it is an important alternative to reduce America’s oil usage in the intermediate term while we devote energy and resources toward developing viable biofuels, electric vehicles and other alternatives that are more renewable and sustainable.