Bringing gas to the Island

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VICTORIA, B.C. – Cold Star Freight is breaking new ground with its purchase of 10 natural gas Mack tractors. The company is the first to bring natural gas fuelling infrastructure to Vancouver Island, and is also among the smaller Canadian fleets to adopt the increasingly popular alternative fuel.

Kelly Hawes, president of Cold Star Freight, attended the Natural Gas Vehicle Infrastructure Conference Oct. 1-2, to discuss his company’s natural gas strategy. Cold Star runs 35 trucks, transporting perishable products between the Lower Mainland of B.C. and Vancouver Island.

It partnered with FortisBC through an incentive program that pays back 75% of the cost premium associated with natural gas trucks.

Cold Star also reached a deal with Fortis to build a fast-fill compressed natural gas (CNG) fuelling station on the Island.

For a small fleet such as Cold Star, the incentive program and a close collaboration with a fuel supplier was key to taking the leap, Hawes said.

“I can tell you that without that program, we wouldn’t even have entertained this idea,” Hawes said. “For a small company like ours to take on a challenge with such a huge capital (investment) would be too big a risk.”

Hawes estimates Cold Star will reduce its diesel consumption by about 380,000 litres per year once it takes delivery of its natural gas-powered trucks in December.

It is already looking to possibly add another 10 natural gas trucks to operate out of its Nanaimo location in 2014, with a CNG fuelling station to be constructed at its terminal there.

Hawes said his company enjoyed a strong relationship with its local Mack dealer, and was comforted by the fact it could switch to natural gas without a radical departure from its traditional spec’.

“We have a great relationship with our Nanaimo Mack dealer,” Hawes said. “We were thrilled when they came to the table with a solution. They also have a maintenance shop in Victoria they are converting to look after all our maintenance requirements. We were able to spec’ out the exact truck we currently have, except we’re adding the natural gas.”

The one change is that the CNG tanks required a slight wheelbase extension. Cold Star has chosen the Cummins Westport ISX12 G engine, mated to a 13-speed transmission, with 45 DGE (diesel gallon equivalent) tanks.

One frustration for Cold Star has been that natural gas costs considerably more on the Island than on the Lower Mainland.

Hawes said the company briefly considered setting up routes that would enable the trucks to fuel up on the mainland, but wanted to do its part to develop a natural gas fuelling infrastructure on Vancouver Island.

“Once we have this here, we want to go out even to our competitors and say ‘There is a solution here’,” Hawes said, adding Fortis is trying to come up with a way to establish more consistent pricing between Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

While Hawes is optimistic about the potential for natural gas, he admitted he still has some concerns. The trucks run 20 hours a day, so unplanned downtime will be extremely disruptive.

“We don’t have time to have them in the shop,” he said.

Cold Star will also have to change how it services its vehicles, which today is often done by a team of mobile mechanics; work on natural gas trucks will have to take place in approved facilities.

Hawes also is cognizant that the province could begin taxing natural gas if it gains traction as a transportation fuel.

Another challenge is how to share the savings with customers and establish a fair fuel surcharge model. Hawes said he’s also unsure of when to sell the diesel trucks the natural gas vehicles will be replacing.

He plans to keep the diesel tractors for a few months before selling them so that the company has a backup in place while it learns the nuances of natural gas.

While this experiment is still very much in the early stages, Hawes said he feels natural gas is a viable option for smaller fleets, not just the big guys.

“I do believe there’s an opportunity for smaller fleets to get involved in natural gas, but it’s important for the OEMs and fuel providers to understand the unique challenges of small fleets,” Hawes said. “For example, we don’t have the capital to withstand a period of trial and error. We don’t have excess equipment for downtime. Those are huge, huge challenges for us.”

Still, Hawes said Vancouver Island is home to many small fleets and owner/operators, and as the fuelling infrastructure is developed, there should be some excellent opportunities for them to take advantage of the potential savings.

– This article first appeared in the January issue of Truck West.

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