Numbers add up for natural gas

TORONTO, Ont. — Usually, telling a good story involves weaving words into pictures, but at the Natural Gas Vehicles Canada conference, some of the most compelling tales were told by the numbers.

Two fleets were called upon to present in the NGV industry track—Groupe Robert Inc. and Sutco Contracting Ltd.—and both used their fleet data to tell the story of why they’re both committed to natural gas solutions.

Yves Maurais, Group Robert’s engineering manager laid out the case succinctly. The company has 125 LNG trucks (115 Peterbilt 386 sleeper cabs, 7 Kenworth T800 day cabs, 1 Volvo VNL630 sleeper cab and 1 Volvo VNL670 sleeper cab). All are powered by the 15L Westport GX running about 5-10% diesel, except the VNL670 which is a 50/50 hybrid. That portion of the company’s fleet puts on 1,000,000 miles per month, and for those miles, the company burns over 700,000 litres of diesel equivalent every month. The average fuel consumption for those trucks is 6.5 mpg (Imperial) or 43.5L/100km. The LNGs produce 25% fewer greenhouse gases than diesels. The current ratio of diesel to LNG is 9.86%.

Yves Maurais
Yves Maurais

Currently the company has well over 300 drivers trained to use the trucks, “because most of these trucks do double, even triple duty. We’re trying to put as many miles on them as we can.” Group Robert also has 43 technicians stationed in 14 service centres trained to work on the trucks.

Having presented at the same conference last year, Maurais was asked a question about how the maintenance costs compare between the LNGs and their diesel counterparts, so this year he was determined to come armed with an answer.

“I took our first delivery of trucks, those Peterbilts with the GX. In 2012, we received 30 of them.I matched them up with 15 Volvo diesel trucks we received at the roughly same time, which was towards the end of 2011,” said Maurais.

“I wanted to look at a long period of time, and I wanted to make sure the trucks were broken in, so I took from January 2013 to July 2014, over 18 months of service, and then I looked at their maintenance costs per mile.”

It turns out that the LNGs have “roughly exactly the same cost per mile” as the diesels. Taking all the maintenance costs into account, including things like replacing consumables such as tires, the LNGs cost $0.16 cents per mile in maintenance. The diesels came in at $0.17.

“People are asking, is it going to cost more, but from what we see here, after three years, it will cost basically the same,” he told the conference attendees.

Group Robert's maintenance costs
Group Robert’s maintenance costs

Like Maurais, Doug Sutherland, vice-president of Salmo, B.C.-based Sutco Contracting Ltd. was able to easily quantify why running 6 natural gas trucks makes sense for the company’s wood residual division.

“Why Sutco considered LNG vehicles is that you had to do a ton of kilometres and for us, in Western Canada, we run max weights, so we’re 63,500kgs or 140,000lbs. The two of those coming together means you’re consuming a massive amount of fuel. The example Maurais used on fuel economy makes me extremely jealous. We average 4.23 mpg. That’s average, but we’re max weights and Rocky Mountain passes, so clearly the 15L engine is the only engine available for what we need to do.

“Also, talking about the rounders and the distance we have to go, we’re looking at over 700km we can do on LNG tractors, and we double shift as well. It’s all about consuming fuel,” he said, adding that “our fixed costs are higher, but you are saving money on the fuel. It’s all about getting in as many kilometres per day as possible.”

One of the concerns Sutco had was with LNG’s ability to perform in comparison to the diesel units the drivers were used to driving, but Sutherland said that hasn’t been an issue.

“In talking with a driver this morning, he said they’re losing a half-a-gear on hills. That’s all they’ve lost in pulling power. And a little bit more, a full gear, on the holdback, but it’s not an issue at all.

Besides the LNGs, Sutco runs Kenworths with the MX engine, and according to Sutherland, the company gets “about 4.9 mpg, but they basically have a little less power than the LNG trucks do and the holdback is a little less. We’re still seeing a big advantage with the fuel economy.”

For Sutherland, making the switch to natural gas not only had to be a smart move according to the numbers, it also had to be the right message for his sales and marketing teams.

Doug Sutherland

“Are we making the world a better place, and can we sell that? Is it making a difference to our customer? Not that we have to give up any rates, but if we come in at an equal rate right now, will they make a move environmentally? We met with some customers and it did make a difference for them. It helped them sell up to the next level of business. We looked at it and felt, ‘we will have an advantage.’”

Of course there is more to keeping a natural gas fleet operating, and being profitable than can be expressed in sheer numbers. Both Maurais and Sutherland offered up some opinions on the good and the bad in the industry. For example, for natural gas to be more widely adopted, Maurais said the number of filling stations has to grow.

“We’ve got to keep developing the station infrastructure. Now what we have is mainly on the 401 corridor, or on Highway 20 in Quebec, but if you want to go south of the border, reaching the first station in the US is kind of hard to do now. The closest station is down in southern Connecticut, or you have to go down to New Jersey on the eastern seaboard.”

The way governments look at LNG also needs to be updated.

Regulations haven’t changed for LNG trucks. We have some issues with the trucks we use right now. They’re heavier. Overall, the truck is at least 1,500 lbs. heavier than an equivalently sized diesel because of the tanks, the system and the pumps. At some point there is a penalty in the day-to-day operations, and we would like regulations to be updated because of that,” said Maurais.

Both Maurais and Sutherland expressed the need for 15L engines in Canada, but even beyond the size of the engine, Maurais wishes OEMs would pay more attention to the options they offer on LNGs.

“We’ve seen some improvements on diesel trucks, mostly direct drive transmissions and developments as far as getting better fuel economies. We would like to see those technologies also used on natural gas vehicles. We would like to get them as soon as they are available for diesel.”

On the plus side, Sutherland offered the opinion that fleets are in a good position to test whatever the manufacturers have available.

“I think for anyone out there, the OEMs or the people who have conversion kits, they’re going to let you test the equipment. We’re in a day and age where you can try out anything you want to and it’s exactly what we did. We took the equipment and we tested it over a week on the runs we needed to do. We ran it side-by-side with diesel and we didn’t have any power issues.”

Both presenters emphasized that it’s not just technology, but the way people respond to it. Maurais, for example, said Groupe Robert emphasized the importance of training not just drivers and technicians but safety and security crews and first responders about how to work with LNG. For Sutco, a key step was acclimatizing drivers to the idea of LNG.

“We needed our drivers to buy in, and if they didn’t buy in, it wouldn’t work,” said Sutherland, explaining that the company spent a lot of time explaining the technology to the drivers, introducing them to its partners, including Fortis BC, ENN, Allison and Westport, and allowing them to ask questions of the partners. Sutco also introduced a number of other environmentally friendly projects such as switching a DEF container pump to solar power and swapping out a foreman’s F-150 for an electric vehicle. As a result of all the preparation and groundwork, “they bought in. And right out of the gate, they knew how to drive the trucks.

“One of the interesting things about these engines is they die off when you get into the RPM range, whereas with a traditional engine, if you get up into the RPMs, the truck still is going to grab more power. This is why a lot of the guys say the trucks have no power: because they’re not in the right range.”

It’s not just the actions behind the wheel that need to change, but the decisions taken while sitting at the desk.

“You are going to have to change your operations. Why? Because you will be limited in range. You will be limited in where the stations are. So you need to adapt your operations, and if you want a faster return on your investment, you need to run your trucks as much as possible, burn as much fuel as you can, as weird as that might sound, burning fuel is going to save you money. That’s how natural gas works compared with diesel. So keep your trucks on the road,” said Maurais.







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