Fleets switching to natural gas fueling

UPS announced plans to build an additional 12 compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling stations and to add 380 new CNG tractors in the US. This announcement is indicative of a growing trend in North America toward long-term commitments to CNG as a major fleet motor fuel.

By Gas Technology April 27, 2017

UPS, a global leader in transportation and logistics, recently announced plans to build an additional 12 compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling stations and to add 380 new CNG tractors to its alternate fuel and advanced technology truck fleet in the US. The expansion involves purchases totaling $100 million. This announcement is indicative of a growing trend in North America toward long-term commitments to CNG as a major fleet motor fuel. The range of vehicles, the development of fueling infrastructure, and the awareness of the benefits of this technology are all on the upswing.

UPS has history with CNG

UPS operates a motor fleet of 100,000 vehicles worldwide, including local delivery vans and large intercity truck-trailer combinations. The company has evaluated the use of CNG as a motor fuel since 1989, and beginning in 1999 participated in a detailed study by the U.S. DOE on CNG vs. diesel motor fuel at two Connecticut UPS locations. The results of that study were published by DOE in 2002 and included documentation on fuel economy, vehicle maintenance, emissions, and vehicle performance. Since that time, UPS has periodically expanded its natural gas fleet.

As part of its corporate commitment to sustainable energy use, the company also uses hybrid electric, propane, and composite light-weight body vehicles. UPS had set a goal of achieving one billion miles on its alternate fuel and advanced technology fleet. It met that goal in 2016, one year earlier than initially expected.

Commitment based on long-term value

In a 2016 statement, Mark Wallace, UPS Senior Vice President global engineering and sustainability stated, “At UPS, we own our fleet and our infrastructure. This allows us to invest for the long term, rather than planning around near-term fluctuations in fuel pricing.” In addition to the 380 new CNG road tractors, in 2015 the company also announced the purchase of 64 liquefied natural gas (LNG) tractors for its fleet of more than 3,000 natural gas vehicles.

Worldwide trend


For all these fleet vehicles, various fueling strategies are used, depending on the daily use pattern and proximity to public or private rapid fueling facilities. For vehicles that normally return to a central site and are not in use in a predictable pattern, many owners choose to install a timed-fill fueling station. For other vehicles that may not be on a predictable daily use pattern, the choice is often to use a public or private fast-fill facility. Such fueling stations are being installed in many urban and interstate highway locations.

Fueling systems fit the customer

Agility Fuel Solutions is a leading provider of natural gas fueling systems for heavy-duty and medium-duty vehicles. A spokesperson for Agility, Steve Whaley, was recently a presenter at a Technology & Market Assessment Forum sponsored by the Energy Solutions Center. His presentation focused on the growing opportunity for vehicle providers to reduce operating costs, reduce emissions and offer a positive public presentation by selecting natural gas vehicles.

Whaley points outs obvious first candidates for natural gas fleet use. “The common characteristics are a defined area of travel and overnight refueling at a central location.” A very visible example is transit buses. “Years ago, natural gas adoption in the transit bus market became very popular. They commonly have a central location that the entire fleet can use.” Today, about 30% of the transit buses in the U.S. are fueled with natural gas.

Local-use vehicles an attractive opportunity

He notes that a similar characteristic is seen in the refuse truck market, and today that is a growing area of adoption of natural gas fueling. Similar opportunities exist for ready-mix concrete and parcel delivery trucks. For these types of vehicles, Agility and other companies provide CNG vehicle tank configurations in a wide variety of types to meet the gallonage requirement of the owner, with a choice of the most practical placement of the fuel tanks.

Over-the-road requires more storage

In addition to the local transit and delivery vehicle markets, there is growing interest in CNG fueling for over-the-road tractors. Whaley points out, “Now that CNG fuel stations are becoming much more common with strategic placement along major highway routes, the heavy-duty trucking industry is the next emerging market for natural gas adoption. These vehicles have much larger fuel storage requirements than buses and refuse collectors, which average 60 to 80 diesel gallon equivalents (DGE).”

He notes that Agility has developed system configurations to meet the range requirements of much longer haul routes. “Side mount systems range from 17 to 120 DGE and behind the cab systems range from 30 to 170 DGE (and sometimes combinations of both) are being implemented to achieve the necessary amount of fuel needed for the route application.”

For the applications such as the UPS purchase of CNG road tractors, companies like Agility help owners evaluate the economic benefits of the purchase. Whaley indicates that the incremental cost of adopting natural gas fueling is proportional to the size capacity of the system purchased. “The most popular for this market segment has been the 160 DGE behind-the-cab system that provides over 600 miles of range and costs on average an additional $45,000.”

Higher vehicle cost offset by fuel savings

He notes, “If the life cycle of this vehicle is specified as 750,000 miles, with the disparity of diesel to natural gas fuel cost at $.80/gallon, the total savings over the life of the truck is over $10,000. When diesel prices are above natural gas by $1.00/gallon, the savings become well over $30,000. If diesel prices were to get past $2.00 per gallon more (as they have done in the past), the net lifetime fuel savings would climb to $150,000 per truck. “

Lower maintenance costs

Regarding maintenance costs, Whaley points out that because natural gas engines require spark plugs, maintenance costs are slightly higher in the first one to two years. “There is a dramatic reduction after year three, however, due to the expensive diesel exhaust treatment systems needed to comply with emission standards.” Whaley explains that natural gas engines meet EPA and CARB emission standards without the expense of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), particulate filters, or the need for regeneration.

Environmentally sustainable solution

Whaley adds that companies are increasingly requiring environmentally sustainable measures, both as truck buyers and as customers of transportation services. “They are finding that the the natural gas transportation solution is not only environmentally sustainable; it is also economically sustainable.” He adds, “Natural gas provides less expensive and cleaner energy than diesel, and by utilizing our domestically produced energy, we can reduce our dependency on foreign oil.”

More information:

Agility Fuel Solutions

DOE Alternate Fuels Data Center

Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance

Natural Gas Vehicles for America

This article originally appeared in the Gas Technology Spring 2017 issue