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Survey: Support for Long-Haul LNG-Fueled Trucks Lukewarm

A majority of large long-haul, heavy-duty trucking fleet operators are turning thumbs down on liquefied natural gas (LNG) options for their vehicles, preliminary results from a survey by a logistics consulting firm for freight shippers showed Thursday.

NGI received an advance copy of a white paper by Pennsylvania-based PLS Logistics Services, which provides an Internet-based transportation platform for a network of trucking carriers nationally. PLS Logistics is about to release survey results in its white paper that generally indicates lukewarm interest among fleet operators for LNG-powered heavy duty trucks. PLS is focused on heavy industrial shipping, a sector viewed as a sweet spot by some for the LNG transportation fuel suppliers. It has more than 1,200 carriers in its network, representing some 1.5 million trucks, along with rail and barge companies.

PLS surveyed 100 industrial freight carriers' senior executives representing heavy industrial fleets of more than 50 vehicles. While LNG is considered ideal for long-haul, heavy-duty trucking, PLS said there are "unique characteristics" in the sector that challenge LNG adoption. The majority of the survey respondents (76.1%) were aware of LNG as a transportation fuel, but no one surveyed planned to purchase LNG vehicles this year.

About three-quarters (72%) of the respondents felt LNG technology "had limited adoption potential for industrial freight," the PLS survey found. In addition to the lack of a broad public refueling infrastructure, the heavy duty, long-haul trucks need higher horsepower (hp) and torque to handle heavy cargo weights, PLS said, noting that typical diesel engines used in heavy duty fleets are 450-550 hp and 1,600-1,800 torque, and "most LNG-powered engines fall short of this performance."

The chief of NGV America, a Washington, DC,-based trade group for natural gas and hydrogen transportation, blasted the survey for not including the major long-haul fleet operators, most of whom are turning to LNG in a big way. "We're selling natural gas trucks as fast as we can make them, so I don't know who they talked to in their survey," said President Richard Kolodziej.

The survey did not include many large fleet operators, such as UPS, FedEx, Dillion Transport and "a whole bunch of companies" that have announced large LNG truck purchases, he said. In addition, the issues of engine size and fueling infrastructure are being addressed.

Bruce Russell, the spokesperson for natural gas fuel and fueling infrastructure provider, Seal Beach, CA-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. told NGI Wednesday that UPS and CR England have opened a new truck fueling station in Las Vegas. He also noted that in addition to about 1,200 natural gas-powered trucks that are serving the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach -- the nation's busiest -- "many other fleets are testing and planning deployment pending fuel availability in their corridors," he said.

Clean Energy in recent weeks has published a list of several major trucking companies switching to LNG or other natural gas-fueled vehicles. "We have more than 100 nondisclosure agreements with shippers and truckers sharing information so we can mutually plan station locations and corridors," said Russell, however, did not say how many are long-haul shippers.

As the PLS Logistics white paper pointed out, compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles are appropriate for smaller "return-to-base" vehicles like school buses, garbage trucks and local delivery trucks. "LNG vehicles, because of their increased range, are currently a better option for long-haul, heavy duty trucking."

There are some specialty environments that attract LNG for transportation, however, as evidenced by a water service provider in the oil/gas patch. Heckmann Water Resources (HWR) has made a big bet on the emerging market for LNG truck transportation, last year ordering 200 LNG trucks for its operations, which include providing water for drilling operations and using mobile LNG fueling stations throughout the U.S. shale plays. HWR's trucks are being built by Peterbilt Motors Corp. of Denton, TX, using Westport HD Systems from Westport Innovations Inc. of Vancouver, BC.

The PLS survey noted that Westport HD LNG engines fit "the lower end of the power requirement." The PLS survey also noted that carriers don't feel under any pressure from customers to move toward cleaner LNG vehicles. Among the barriers for adoption of LNG, the survey respondents (53.6%) leading obstacle was "inadequacy of the LNG refueling infrastructure."

Frost & Sullivan, a national research/consulting firm, selected HWR for its "2011 Award for Green Excellence," noting that its LNG truck order was much larger than any other major private North American fleet operators. Earlier HWR had announced that it made a deal with Canadian-based Encana Corp. to be its exclusive supplier of LNG for the burgeoning fleet that is be filled out with natural gas-powered trucks by the end of this year.

In announcing its award to HWR, Frost & Sullivan (F&S) acknowledged that "lack of sufficient LNG fueling infrastructure" for major commercial fleets has been the biggest obstacle to wider adoption. "The natural gas vehicle market is still in its early stages, as such, any fleets that take an early adopter stance by placing large orders serve to support vehicle manufacturers and the related systems and components suppliers in driving sufficient sales to start regular production," said F&S's Sandeep Kar, commercial vehicle research global director.

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