LEADERS: Bison’s Rob Penner on experimenting with LNG

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Bison is one of the early adopters in the industry of natural gas power for its trucks. It recently entered into a five-year agreement with Shell Canada to run 15 liquefied natural gas (LNG) tractors in Alberta. In an exclusive interview with Bison COO, Rob Penner, we find out how the project is progressing.

Q. How is the LNG project coming along and what are your expectations? Should we expect to see growth in your natural gas-powered fleet?

Penner: It’s a bit early to draw any conclusions on whether LNG is right for us. It was important for us to learn the technology. As mentioned earlier, we are a learning organization and for our fleet to be informed on what technologies are out there, whether it’s to power the truck or make us safer or manage our operating systems more efficiently, we need to know what that looks like. We’ve put these 15 trucks into play. They came into service January 1 and we are now getting their utilization into a range where we are comfortable we can start to gather reliable data.  Optimizing the spec only comes through running the trucks and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.

We have the LNG tractors working in our heavy haul long combination vehicle operations. There are many little challenges to deal with,  most of them expected and none of them catastrophic. It’s on us to work through, fine tune and optimize the range on these vehicles. The technology works; we are just not sure if it is ultimately effective in the applications we are looking for. It’s expensive and today it limits our operational flexibility due to lack of infrastructure. We can overcome a lot of that, however, there are still things that remain unclear. We are waiting to see what the fuel suppliers are going to do to provide appropriate infrastructure. There is also uncertainty about the long-term road tax implications for natural gas. We believe Ottawa and the Provinces will tax natural gas similar to how diesel is taxed. We are infrastructure challenged in North America and as users of the highways, it is necessary for fleets to help fund highway improvements through fuel tax programs, but any new costs in the system affect payback. Our business can’t afford to invest in this technology as an environmental initiative. It has to have its business case.

CT&L: Even if natural gas was taxed at the same rate of diesel, would it still not be cheaper?

Penner: It is still cheaper, but there are other factors to consider. The capital costs of equipment limit how much of this a private carrier like ourselves can fund. Do you buy 60 LNG powered tractors or 100 diesel? Those are going to be real fleet decisions. Is this an alternative energy strategy or an environmental play? What is the true impact to the environment? There are differing opinions on the cost/benefit/impacts and we are trying to go into this as informed as possible.

CT&L: What do your drivers think about the LNG vehicles?

Penner: There are lots of little start up nuances surrounding spec, electronics and tuning that need to be worked through with each tractor  to optimize it and we’ve tried to limit the impact to the driver of that. Our drivers have been understanding of the necessity to learn the technology. The truck itself is quieter and does have plenty of power and after we worked the bugs out the driver feedback has been largely positive.

Stay tunned to www.trucknews.com for more of our exclusive Leaders interview with Rob Penner

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