The rise of natural gas trucks

 By Peter Ward

Natural gas technology has struggled to make an impact on the diesel-reliant heavy duty vehicle industry. Will environmental regulations boost the popularity of natural gas vehicles or will low oil prices set the fuel technology back further? One report suggests natural gas vehicles will account for 3% of the heavy duty vehicle market by 2021…

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The vast majority of heavy duty vehicles currently run on diesel gas despite the advancement of natural gas vehicles which cause less environmental damage. So what is the hold up?

Diesel engines could be found in 98.5 percent of heavy duty (class 8) trucks in North America last year, according to a report from ACT Research. But slowly and steadily, change is coming. The same report suggests that the natural gas share of the market is projected to rise to just over 3 percent of the industry in 2021. Natural gas trucks run on either compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas.

But why is the trucking industry so slow to move to a greener fuel? The short answer is cost. It takes a significant investment to switch from a fleet of diesel trucks to natural gas, and the expense may not stop there. Because of the recent low oil prices, it doesn’t make economic sense to switch – diesel is cheaper. But as oil prices climb, the case for using natural gas fueled truck will grow stronger.

Some major truck fleet owners are already making large investments in compressed natural gas (CNG) infrastructure and trucks. UPS, the logistics firm, announced a $100 million investment in 12 CNG fueling stations and 380 new CNG heavy duty trucks back in March.


“At UPS, we own our fleet and our infrastructure. That allows us to invest for the long-term, rather than planning around near-term fluctuations in fuel pricing,” Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president global engineering and sustainability said at the time of the investment. “CNG is part of a broad investment in a variety of alternative fuel vehicles. Taken together, all of our alternative fuel vehicles represent 6% of the more than 100,000 UPS global fleet, and have driven a 10% annual reduction in use of conventional fuel.”

UPS has also set itself a goal to log one billion miles with alternative fuel and its advanced technology fleet by the end of 2017.

The Canadian province of Ontario unveiled a greener commercial vehicle plan this year. In June, the province announced a five-year Climate Change Action Plan that includes funds to adopt cleaner commercial vehicles and to build a natural gas fueling network. A Green Commercial Vehicle Program will launch in 2017 and will include up to $170 million in incentives for adopting electric and natural gas commercial vehicles and other new technologies.

Natural gas trucks may not be widely used at this point in time, but change is not far down the road. When it does happen, trucks will enjoy savings, emissions will drop, and the oil and gas industry’s LNG and CNG sectors will benefit immensely.

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about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.