Path to natural gas supported by larger engines, renewable fuels

Natural gas engines presented Werner Enterprises with several challenges when the fleet first experimented with the fuel.

Truck drivers who had been using 15-liter engines “weren’t excited” about the reduced torque and horsepower delivered by the 12-liter powerplants that ran on compressed natural gas (CNG), said Chad Dittberner, senior vice-president – van/expedited.

Then there was the ongoing concern around where they could refuel. “They were always, always worried about running out,” he said, during a presentation during ACT Research’s Seminar 67. Even when the fuel stations could be found, ambient temperatures played a role in the volumes that could be added to tanks.

There were maintenance challenges, too. The natural gas engines didn’t face more problems, exactly, but it was harder to find maintenance support when they did. “Or if we did find [the support], we’d have to wait in line longer than a diesel truck,” he added.

Showing Cummins X15N natural gas engines
(Photo: Cummins)

But just under a decade later, Werner is excited about the promise of a new 15-liter natural gas offering from Cummins — the X15N — which promises to deliver up to 500 hp and 1,850 lb.-ft. of torque, and at a lower weight than its diesel-fueled counterpart.

It’s a significant development. The manufacturer had initially paused its plans to develop a 15-liter engine in 2014, after Westport discontinued its own 15-liter model, limiting potential applications when hauling heavier loads over hilly terrain.

The right timing

But the timing for the big-bore offering now seems right.

“What’s different is that the ESG [Environmental, Social and Governance] sustainability goals are far different now than they were about three, four, five years ago,” Puneet Jhawar, general manager of Cummins’ global natural gas business, told TruckNews.com.

Dittberner offered proof of that, citing the 92% of S&P 500 companies that now publish sustainability reports, and the 66% that have set targets to reduce carbon emissions.

Natural gas doesn’t simply promise to generate lower greenhouse gas emissions when compared to diesel. When in its renewable form (RNG), the fuel boasts a negative Carbon Intensity score from “wells to wheels”, Jhawar said. “It helps us get to a point of sustainable transport.

“Then you couple that with the fact that you’ve now got an engine which can address a larger market in the U.S. rather than playing in the small regional hauls.”

“You’re using pollution to run a vehicle. It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Thomas Healy, CEO of Hyliion, noting how RNG can be produced using waste.

Available and affordable

RNG already accounts for more than 60% of the natural gas sold at U.S. filling stations, and there’s more on the way. While 250 RNG production facilities are now online, 112 are being constructed, and 125 are being developed.

“We’re going to probably see another doubling of the renewable natural gas being produced,” he said.

The fuel can also be produced at a lower cost than other alternatives such as electricity and hydrogen, Healy added, noting natural gas can be produced for 0.07/kWh, compared to battery electric power that comes in at 0.28/kWh and hydrogen at 0.83/kWh.

The fuel can even be delivered using the same infrastructure that delivers traditional natural gas.

“The industry is not ready for full battery-electric vehicles because the grid is not capable and a million other things,” Jhawar said.

“You look at [battery-electric vehicles] and you say, ‘tailpipe emission is zero’, but then you’re mining lithium somewhere, and then you’re transporting lithium somewhere, and you’re making batteries somewhere, and there’s an environmental impact.”

The debate about whether hydrogen should power fuel cells or be injected directly into a combustion engine also continues.

Support network

In the midst of it all, the support networks behind natural gas as a truck fuel have evolved, Dittberner said. Fuel is easier to come by now that there are 694 stations that can support Class 8 trucks across the U.S. And compared to a decade ago there are more technicians who have experience with the equipment.

“If something does go wrong, you’ve got to be able to get it fixed right away. Fueling? If one station is down, you don’t want to be stuck out there without being able to refuel or recharge the vehicle,” he said.

Not that he thinks natural gas will be the only solution to tackle greenhouse gas emissions.

“As we see the new technologies, I believe they’re all going to have a fit, but it starts to get a little complicated on different technologies, different driver parameters, different drive times,” he said.

“It’s not one solution fits all,” Jhawar agreed. “We can’t expect that every fleet is going to turn around and say, ‘We want natural gas.’ We certainly don’t think that every fleet is going to want battery-electric as well. But we see that the adoption rate for natural gas engines or vehicles is going to be far more than battery-electric vehicles in the next few years to come.”

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.


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