Moving the Needle
Wherever we turn these days, it seems that CNG is one topic on everyone’s mind. At the 2014 Electric Utility Fleet Managers Conference held in June, for example, CNG was the subject of the first technical session, including a report by Nina Kisch, manager, fleet administration, transportation services at PG&E. Among the more than 3,300 on-road alternative-fueled and high-efficiency vehicles in the PG&E fleet, she reported, there are more than 720 natural gas units.
“CNG has a lower equivalent cost than gasoline or diesel, and lower carbon intensity than biodiesel, LNG, ultra-low-sulfur diesel, ethanol and reformulated gasoline,” Kisch reported. “CNG is also considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992. In addition, while the number of light-duty natural gas vehicles from OEMs are limited but growing, a wide variety of heavy-duty natural gas vehicles are available from manufacturers, and CNG conversions are readily available.
“While the current generation of equipment is much more reliable than first generation,” Kisch continued, “CNG vehicles aren’t available in large quantities, there are range limitations due to storage and density, and fuel storage space on the vehicle is an issue, so CNG often requires us to build a bigger, less fuel-efficient truck than diesel. There is also still a significant premium on purchases of $5,000 to $8,000 for light-duty models and $15,000 to $30,000 or more for a heavy-duty vehicle, depending on the size of the fuel system and technology, higher maintenance costs due to durability and parts availability, and in some cases a lack of qualified technicians and service centers.”
Werner J. Schweiger, Northeast Utilities president, electric distribution, delivered the keynote address at EUFMC, and CNG was also on his agenda. “The utility industry is addressing how efficiently it manages its energy portfolio,” he said, “and sustainability is a fleet issue as well. As a result, the debate about alternative fuels is a challenge in the Northeast Utilities fleet of more than 5,000 assets.
“Idling has become a significant issue,” Schweiger went on to explain. “Along with fostering a culture of more responsible operational practices, we also need to adopt technological solutions that promote environmental responsibility and enhance the image we portray in our communities.”
Increasingly in use at Northeast Utilities, Schweiger noted, are alternatives to gas and diesel vehicles and equipment. In particular, CNG-powered units are being added to the utility’s light-duty fleet. However, there does remain the challenge posed by a fuel supply infrastructure for natural gas vehicles.
“Fueling infrastructure is one of the largest limitations on CNG vehicle adoption,” Schweiger said. “With respect to the solution, expansion of more fill stations must be driven by a larger demand that has to come from more CNG-enabled fleets and more progress in cost-effective solutions among the choices available for CNG models. Other partners in finding a solution can be local, state and federal agencies that promote conversion of fleets to alternative fuels such as CNG through grants and other programs.”
Schweiger encourages dialogue among industry stakeholders. “Forums such as the Electric Utility Fleet Managers Conference are ideal for the collaboration that is needed to bridge the requirements of utilities with the gas industry and automotive vendors,” he stated.
“As an operations executive, I have always valued the role of fleet,” Schweiger continued. “While fleet was once viewed merely as a cost center, it is now a strategic asset as utilities work to effectively manage their fuel costs and to enhance a culture that is environmentally responsible. The theme of this conference – driving fleet value and performance – is timely as the industry continues to focus on fuel diversity, a challenge that will grow. The amount of progress you have already made is impressive, and the collaboration between fleet professionals and vendors has moved the needle with respect to the transportation needs of the utility industry.”
For more information about EUFMC, visit www.eufmc.com.