November 19, 2013

Natural Gas - A Remarkable Transportation Renaissance

This is the third installment in our guest blog series: A Wider Lens.
This series features first-hand accounts from people driving natural gas vehicles, industry leaders and decision-makers in the natural gas transportation industry.

By Guest Contributor, Alicia Milner 
President of the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance (CNGVA)

Alicia Milner, President of the CNGVA
A remarkable renaissance is taking place when it comes to the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel in Canada. Long recognized as a cleaner-burning alternative, natural gas vehicles had some inherent technology challenges when they first made their debut in Canada back in the 1980’s. Heavy steel fuel cylinders, inefficient engines, and power loss issues all contributed to operational and economic challenges for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicle users.

Fast forward to 2013 and natural gas vehicles are now poised to move into the mainstream in both Canada and the United States. Heavy truck and bus fleets are choosing natural gas because of the fuel cost savings, lower emissions, quieter operation, availability of factory-built vehicles, renewable natural gas-capability, and diesel-like performance. And while many reasons can be cited for why a fleet might consider switching to natural gas, nothing is more powerful than seeing some of Canada’s early adopters returning to natural gas vehicle use.

Transit bus operator Hamilton Street Railway (HSR) is an excellent example. HSR participated directly in the development of the world’s first natural gas transit bus in the mid-1980s and went on to acquire two more generations of natural gas engines in their transit bus fleet. At the peak, HSR operated Canada’s largest fleet of natural gas buses with more than 100 CNG buses, but challenges with maintenance costs, vehicle reliability, and refueling station maintenance led HSR to move away from CNG.

Then, in January 2013, HSR brought forward a recommendation to transition their entire fleet of more than 220 buses to CNG operation. HSR identified the potential for $800,000 in annual fuel cost savings and a $41 million return on investment over twenty years on a net present value basis. The “green” benefit of natural gas use was calculated at 86 kilotonnes fewer greenhouse gas emissions over 20 years. Finally, and most importantly for the natural gas vehicle technologies, HSR noted that the maintenance costs with natural gas are now more predictable than the cost of maintaining diesel buses that have exhaust aftertreatment systems.

The City of Medicine Hat, in southeast Alberta, was also an early adopter of natural gas vehicles. They, too, are now returning to natural gas vehicle use. With a population of approximately 60,000, Medicine Hat is itself a natural gas producer. Their first round experience with natural gas fleet vehicles more than 20 years ago did not meet expectations. This time, Medicine Hat plans to transform its light and medium-duty vehicle fleet over a period of three years. With a new station scheduled to be in operation by May 2014 supplied with the City’s own natural gas, the fleet transition will lead to 12 CNG transit buses, 20 refuse trucks, and up to 110 light duty vehicles in use by 2017. This remarkable change is also being accompanied by a new way of thinking about refueling with consideration being given to several different options for station ownership, operation, and access by other local fleets.

The return of early adopters to natural gas vehicle use sends a powerful message to the market about the coming-of-age of natural gas vehicle and station technologies. For Canada, this return brings with it growing interest and opportunities to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) as well as CNG depending on the type of fleet operation.

To help fleets better understand how the natural gas vehicle and station technologies have improved as well as to explain what vehicle, station and fuel options are now available, the natural gas vehicle industry under the direction of the Canadian Natural Gas Vehicle Alliance (CNGVA) is collaborating with Natural Resources Canada on the Go With Natural Gas initiative. This program includes a bilingual website and communications resources such as case studies, factsheets, decision-making support tools, and technical guidelines. In addition, as of January 2014, three regional outreach hubs will be in place to deliver fleet workshops, information resources, consultation on energy use and payback, and access to a broader network via a toll-free national telephone service.

The natural gas for transportation renaissance also holds great promise in new sectors such as the marine, rail, and heavy off road industries. For now, though, the growing interest in on road natural gas vehicles is an exciting and fast-moving development. Canada’s fleets have an opportunity to get onboard and Go With Natural Gas is ready to help them along the way.
Alicia Milner speaks at the Natural Gas Vehicle Conference & Expo in Atlanta, Georgia on November 19, 2013.

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