CALGARY, Alta. - May 28 may have been a significant date in Canadian trucking history. That was when Shell fired a major shot in what many think is a fuel revolution, unveiling to the public the first of its commercial LNG refuelling stations.
The event came with the requisite amount of hoopla, as media, industry and government folk converged on the Calgary location – the Shell Flying J Travel Plaza at 11511 40 Street SE – for a unique ribbon cutting and addresses by dignitaries on hand.
The gas bash was hosted by Jean-Marc Morin, Shell Canada’s general manager, commercial fuels, who said he believes the new facility, which will facilitate LNG-fuelled hauls along the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, anchors what will be the first of many such transport corridors in Canada.
Morin kicked off the proceedings with an anecdote from his childhood as a way to illustrate how profound he thinks the impact of LNG will be. His story hearkened back to October of 1974, when his Dad picked up the family’s new Chevrolet Impala in Drummondville, Que., and Morin noted that its first trip to the gas station was different from usual fill-ups. “Instead of pulling up to the pump with the familiar yellow decal that read Regular,” he said, “this pump was a bit different. It had a blue decal and it read Ultra.”
Of course that was the beginning of the age of unleaded fuel, an era that shows no sign of ending unless gasoline itself can be replaced.
“I can’t help but draw some parallels between my early memories of unleaded gasoline and LNG,” Morin said. “For example, I remember how unleaded gasoline was still a novelty back in 1974. It wasn’t widely available outside the urban areas. But today it’s ubiquitous.”
Morin also noted what he said was another interesting parallel between unleaded gasoline and LNG in that, back then, Shell was the first national company in Canada to introduce unleaded gasoline to the Canadian marketplace, just as it’s now the first to offer LNG service. “We were also the first to completely phase out the sale of leaded gasoline in the late 1980s,” he pointed out.
Making LNG available to the public at a facility such as Calgary’s is not only a first for Shell in Canada, Morin said, but for the Canadian industry and Shell globally as well. “Shell in Canada’s been meeting customers’ fuelling requirements now for over a century,” he said, “and LNG is just the evolution of that offering that we bring to the marketplace.”
Among the advantages Morin cited that LNG provides customers is the opportunity to “reduce their fuel costs versus diesel, but it also provides transportation companies the opportunity to reduce their well-to-wheel CO2 emissions from heavy-duty trucks by up to 20% compared to conventional diesel.” He noted that Shell believes LNG holds a great deal of promise as a transportation fuel and that the Calgary opening was the beginning of “a broader plan that we’re undertaking.”
Also on-hand for the kickoff was Westport Innovations, the Vancouver-based company that has been making a name for itself by building a variety of natural gas engines. Shell and Westport launched a co-marketing program in 2011 to provide customers with solutions on both the fuel supply and vehicle side. Westport is also working with Peterbilt to offer natural gas-burning engines for heavy trucks.
“We first started discussing this project well over a year ago,” said Brad Edgelow, Westport’s North American sales manager, recounting how during the subsequent planning he travelled to Denton, Texas with members of the Bison executive team to witness the carrier’s first LNG truck roll off the Peterbilt assembly line.
“It kind of marked a major moment when we could finally see the project coming to fruition and now we’ve got a lot of these trucks that will be running the Calgary-Edmonton corridor.”
Edgelow noted that Wesport began developing the technology to utilize natural gas in combustion engines about 15 years ago at the University of British Columbia, and said that now “we’ve got engines running in Volvo station wagons in Europe, we have the Ford F-250 through the Ford F-550s, we have transit buses and we have long highway solutions.” They’re also developing solutions for mining, rail and marine.
So it looks like, at least from a hardware point of view, LNG may be here to stay.
Virtues of LNG engines, Edgelow said, include that they’re environmentally friendly, offer the lowest fuel cost as compared to any alternative currently available. They also burn cleaner, are quieter, and “we hear nothing but good reports from drivers who say they like coming home smelling better than they do in a diesel truck.”
He also pointed out that LNG engines also utilize a “made-in-Alberta” resource.
Westport, Edgelow noted proudly, has over 30,000 of its engines operating worldwide so far, including test vehicles being used by both Calgary Transit and the City of Calgary. “With the opening of Shell’s LNG station here,” he said, “we’ve opened the market for on-highway, Class 8 trucks utilizing natural gas. We’re delighted to be a part of this and we look forward to the expansion of use of one of Alberta’s greatest resources.”
Tough, but resourceful
Bringing a new fuel such as LNG to market and building a facility such as Calgary’s can be more difficult than one might think, and Shell’s Morin admitted they faced a number of challenges, issues and risks from the get-go, including government and public acceptance.
“The reality is we can’t (offer LNG) unless we’re able to convincingly articulate why it’s in the public interest for us to do so,” he said. “And as you can well imagine, cultivating productive, effective working relationships with government officials, elected representatives, is terribly important.”
It must have worked, because on hand at the opening were government representatives including Sandra Jansen, MLA for Calgary Northwest, who gave a few words on behalf of the Redford government.
Also at the kickoff was Trevor Fridfinnson, vice-president, western operations for Bison Transport, whose company will be driving many of those LNG-powered trucks.
“We are very pleased to be working with Shell on this leading edge initiative that stands to transform the commercial freight and fuel industries in North America,” he said before the event. “Proving that this alternative fuel source can be economically and practically viable is our objective, aligning perfectly with our company values.”
Since there were no commercial outlets for the fuel before the Shell opening, Bison had been using an LNG fuelling station that Shell set up on its Calgary premises to fill up its LNG fleet. Fridfinnson told Truck News the facility it was using is Shell-owned and will be moved to another location.
The event was capped by the ribbon cutting or, perhaps more accurately in this case, the ribbon ripping. While such premieres usually feature a big pair of scissors wielded by a politician or some other suit, this time the ribbon was terminated in a manner more appropriate to the venue and the event: a Bison truck driving through the filling bay, tearing the ribbon from its moorings, to officially open the facility.
Afterward, guests were treated to some demonstrations of the refuelling process.
The Calgary LNG outlet sits a bit off to the side of the main fuelling area and looks much like a conventional fuelling point, though the LNG station sits open to the sky rather than being covered like the mainstream pumps. And while the southeast Calgary station is the first LNG distribution point to open along the Queen Elizabeth II Highway between Calgary and Edmonton, more are promised, though details at this point are few.
Shell will produce the LNG at its Jumping Pound facility about 30 kilometres west of Calgary, which Shell’s Verity Conrad said will be on-stream sometime next year. A third-party vendor will supply LNG until Jumping Pound is operational.