Written by Chad Lindholm, vice president for natural gas distributor Clean Energy. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Heavy-duty vehicles such as trucks and buses total 7 percent of all vehicles on America’s roadways but account for an outsized 50 percent of all smog-precursor emissions – including nitrogen oxides, or NOx, and diesel particulate matter – and 20 percent of all transportation-related greenhouse gases, or GHGs.
Local, state and federal regulators continue to target HDVs to address the air quality issue. And for good reason.
Four in 10 people in the U.S. live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 “State of the Air” report. That raises the risk of premature death and increases the likelihood of developing lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and asthma. This increased risk is evidenced by the fact that 25 million Americans, or 8 percent of our total population, suffer from asthma.
There is an immediate and commercially available solution to this problem: near-zero-emission natural gas vehicles, or NGVs. They have a proven record of being significantly cleaner than their diesel counterparts and have also become a superior choice of fleet managers interested in escaping the volatility of ever-changing diesel prices.
There’s also good technology to make the switch from diesel to natural gas. The new near-zero emissions natural gas engine from Cummins-Westport is getting rave reviews for its performance and reliability.
Affordable and available
Natural gas is an abundant, domestic and stable fuel that is not subject to the price fluctuations of petroleum products such as diesel. Natural gas enjoys significant price stability over time, saving fleets well over $1 per gallon.
With a well-established and growing infrastructure of more than 2,000 fueling stations, along with 2.5 million miles of pipeline, natural gas fuel is easily accessible.
Almost 98 percent of all natural gas consumed in the U.S. is produced in the U.S., and domestic reserves of natural gas are estimated to be twice those of petroleum based on current consumption – predicted to last more than 100 years.
Displacing diesel with natural gas reduces our reliance on petroleum-based fuels. It’s also a good alternative to the burgeoning electric truck industry. Unlike electricity distribution, the existing natural gas infrastructure can accommodate a spike in demand for transportation uses. And unlike traditional fuels, a spike in demand for NGVs won’t negatively impact residential energy rates.
Natural gas reduces maintenance costs
NGVs are similar to diesel vehicles but with added components to store and feed natural gas to the engine. Long-term maintenance costs of NGVs can be lower, because natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel and generates less wear and tear on some engine components.
The cleanest truck engines in the world are powered by natural gas. The Cummins Westport Ultra-Low NOx engine – made in America – is 90 percent cleaner than the EPA’s current NOx standard and 90 percent cleaner than its latest available diesel engine counterpart.
This technology is available in the United States right now, not in a projected five or even 10 years, as with electric heavy-duty trucks. The Cummins Westport product is certified by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board to a 0.02 grams per brake horsepower hour standard, making it a zero-emission equivalent solution. Early fleets that have begun to deploy the engine have been very pleased with its performance under the most demanding of conditions.
It can run on the cleanest commercially available vehicle fuel – renewable natural gas made from biomethane sourced from organic waste sources such as landfills, dairy farms and wastewater facilities. RNG can meet the fueling requirements of any natural gas vehicle, in either compressed or liquified natural gas.
When RNG is used to fuel the Ultra-Low NOx engine, even greater CO2 and GHG emission reductions are achieved, up to 125 percent lower than diesel.
The reality about electric trucks
As municipalities worldwide are banning diesel and switching to clean alternatives, many people outside the transportation industry think electric will be the zero-emissions solution, even for heavy-duty applications.
While local and national regulations are enabling a supportive environment, the electric truck global market share is only expected to reach 15 percent by 2030, with the uptake in heavy-duty class truck sector expected to be the last to switch, according to an Energy Insights by McKinsey report.
Electric vehicles will be costly to buy and maintain and will raise operational costs for shippers and carriers via increased vehicle weight.
The lack of an established energy grid for recharging electric trucks, which could lead to decreased driving ranges, and the inability to quickly charge a battery-powered semitruck are roadblocks that are currently without proven solutions.
Electric vehicles are not zero-impact
When they become a reality, heavy-duty electric trucks will require a considerable amount of energy to recharge. Cleaner renewable energy is becoming more prevalent in regions such as California. In other areas the demand for electricity will come from plants powered by fossils fuels, coal and nuclear, which could offset environmental benefits.
The lithium-ion batteries in electric trucks take more energy to produce than conventional batteries and can continue to discharge electricity for seven to 10 years after being taken off the roads. The inability to safely dispose of or recycle these batteries creates an environmental hazard.
Additionally, exponential demand for rare metals – cobalt and lithium – used in battery cells has created a human rights and environmental crisis in unregulated and developing countries.
NGVs are powered by American fuel, American technology and American innovation. They have the cleanest well-to-wheels emissions profile of any fuel on the market, and NGVs are making a difference through a variety of applications – trucks, trash, transit and even marine and rail.
Editor’s note: Chad Lindholm is vice president at Clean Energy, the leading provider of natural gas fuel for transportation in the U.S. and Canada.