Light-duty vehicle deals may follow recent announcement of conversion of Ford Motor Co. pickup trucks to natural gas fuel.

Economic, technology and fuel supply developments are all peaking at the right time for a more competitive market for natural gas in the light-duty fleet transportation sector, according to an executive with Vancouver, BC-based Westport Innovations, Inc., a natural gas fueling system provider.

Separately, in Florida a 10-year deal for a new trucking fleet fueling station was announced, and in California the state awarded up to $1.5 million in grants for natural gas and propane transportation fuel developments.

Following a major deal with Ford Motor Co. announced at the end of last month, Westport is looking at a series of deals with other auto manufacturers, but it can’t divulge any specifics at this time, said Darren Seed, vice president for investor relations and communications. “It would be very realistic for us to test other applications” in addition to the announced conversion of Ford’s F-250 and F-350 pickup trucks.

“Over the course of the next 12 months we should be able to talk about other applications,” Seed said. These would all be light-duty vehicles — passenger cars and trucks, he said. “Traditionally, we have focused a lot on fleets because of the fueling infrastructure.”

Seed said a commercial fleet can take care of all of its vehicles through one central fueling location. “You’re not reliant on a mesh of stations that is true with passenger vehicles and sedans,” he said. “They have to rely on a network.”

Westport has different fueling systems for the heavy- and medium-duty vehicles, which provided the basis for the company’s early growth. Through a joint venture with Cummins Engine, Westport built its business on larger vehicles, such as buses, trash trucks and package delivery trucks, for more than a decade.

Seed cited as an example the agreement Westport signed in early September with Royal Dutch Shell to help promote wider use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) throughout North America in heavy-duty vehicles.

Westport is expecting what Seed called “a significant amount of growth” in the light-duty vehicle market, which is already generating more than $100 million in annual revenues. Most of that growth — for both light- and heavy-duty vehicles — is outside North America, he said, but with the Ford pickup contract and the prospect for others, the company thinks the geographical mix will change, expanding in North America.

Shale gas developments generally are helping Westport’s business prospects, said Seed, noting they have created “a very available, cheap and reliable” source of fuel that is “most importantly domestic.” They also have encouraged producers to liquefy supplies in the field and transport it via truck tankers to refueling stations for the heavy-duty vehicles, he said.

Meanwhile, Seal Beach, CA-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. signed a 10-year contract with Florida-based logistics provider Saddle Creek Transportation Inc. to build, operate and maintain a compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling facility scheduled to handle up to 120 Freightliner trucks by the first quarter next year. The CNG facility will be at Saddle Creek’s headquarters and warehouse complex in Lakeland, FL, combing fast-fill and time-fill fueling capability.

Initially the facility will support 40 Freightliner CNG trucks, along with 40 for-hire CNG trucks, before the end of this year. In the first quarter that total will grow to 120 trucks, according to the California gas transportation fuel provider.

In California, the state energy commission (CEC) distributed more than $1.5 million for natural gas- and propane-powered bus transportation in the state. Four awards were granted to three bus companies and a Ford dealer in La Puente,CA. They are part of the CEC’s Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program, under which nearly $14 million has been distributed to public- and private-sector fleet operators. Grants were: two to Creative Bus Sales of Chino, CA, ($575,000 each) for five gas-powered mini-buses and the rest for purchasing 28 shuttle buses. The second award, also for $575,000, will go toward five minibuses and another 28 shuttle buses. All the vehicles are powered by natural gas and are either in the light or medium-duty size categories.

A third award ($160,000) went to Inglewood, CA-based Nations Bus Corp. to buy 10 each medium- and heavy-duty propane-power shuttle buses. The fourth grant ($228,000) went to Ed Butts Ford Inc. for 10 propane-powered shuttle buses in the medium-duty size category.

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