Has natural gas lost its luster?

by James Menzies

What a difference a year can make. Last year when I attended the Natural Gas Vehicles Canada Conference, the list of delegates served as a who’s who of Canadian trucking executives. It seemed every notable fleet was there to investigate whether or not natural gas was a viable fit for their operation.

Don’t get me wrong, this year’s conference was well attended and the list of speakers was as strong as last year. The advocates were still advocating and their enthusiasm for natural gas was as strong as it has ever been.

However, what I found lacking was the contingent of curious observers who were there to investigate, to do their homework and to decide whether or not natural gas will be in their fleet’s future. For the most part, it seemed, speakers were preaching to the already converted, which was the most notable difference between this year’s conference and last year’s.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, diesel prices have provided fleets with some relief of late. Also, business for many transportation providers is currently brisk. Freight volumes are up and rate increases are taking hold. For many carriers, the biggest challenge remains finding qualified drivers to seat their trucks.

Then there’s been the notable pullback of the higher horsepower natural gas engine offerings. Westport killed its 15-litre GX engine last year, Cummins put “on hold” its ISX15 G and most recently, Volvo suspended development of its 13-litre LNG engine.

The lack of a high-horsepower natural gas engine was the talk of the conference this year. Some fleets invited to speak did little to support the movement, by sharing their conclusions that natural gas won’t work for them until a 15-litre once again becomes available. But other fleets raved about the ISX12 G, which by all accounts performs wonderfully in applications limited to 80,000 lbs.

For the most part, even those fleets relying entirely on the now-discontinued Westport 15L GX engine seem confident something will come along to take its place before those engines must be retired from service.

I’m not so sure. The cost of developing such an engine is enormous, especially considering the meager volumes the Canadian market can support. Let’s face it, the ISX12 G serves the vast majority of US demand perfectly adequately. I wouldn’t declare natural gas dead. There’s still a place for it and in the right application it can save the right fleet big bucks.

Just ask Cold Star Freight, which has slashed its fuel costs by 30%, or C.A.T., which is confident enough to have just announced it will deploy 100 CNG-fuelled trucks out of Montreal. No, it’s not dead by a long shot.

However, the alternative fuel that just a year ago seemed poised to break into the mainstream will remain a niche fuel for the foreseeable future. At least until a higher displacement natural gas engine comes along – and it could be a long time coming.

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