Decade-low natural gas prices in the US are helping whet consumer appetite for natural gas vehicles, and Ryder Trucks is getting in on the action.

In addition to the immediate financial benefits, natural gas vehicles (NGVs) can also help companies achieve their corporate sustainability initiatives, says Scott Perry, Vice President, Supply Management at Ryder. Companies can benefit from decreased greenhouse gas emissions and advance their alternative fuel agendas by opting for trucks powered by natural gas.

Ryder works closely with its customers to identify the opportunities and risks associated with NGV use, which remains far from a mature market. The cost savings versus gasoline or diesel are highly variable.

Ryder helps its clients understand the pricing dynamics associated with different vehicle chassis configurations and different natural gas fuel choices. The two major fuel options are compressed natural gas (CNG) – where pressure converts the commodity to a liquid – and liquefied natural gas (LNG) which is a cryogenic process where gas becomes a liquid when cooled below -160 degrees Celsius.

Range Variability

The “Holy Grail” of alternatively fueled vehicles is range parity with gasoline or diesel.

Consumers are used to filling the gas tanks in their cars and driving around 300 miles without refueling, while a bulk-freight truck with a 150-gallon diesel tank can travel 900 miles before stopping for fuel. Ryder’s CNG tractors use an 8.9 liter tank, which is roughly equivalent to a 75-gallon diesel tank, and because engines burn natural gas less efficiently than diesel, it works out closer to a 60-gallon diesel equivalent.

That means Ryder’s CNG trucks have an effective range of between 250 to 325 miles, meaning the operator needs to refuel about three times as often with natural gas than diesel. Fueling time is another factor customers must consider, as it commonly takes about half an hour to refuel a CNG-powered truck.

That also means building out fueling and maintenance infrastructure is one of the biggest challenges facing NGV proliferation in the US.

Ryder plans to build two natural gas fueling stations in Southern California this year and has 400 existing diesel refueling stations nationwide. According to Perry, there are about 1,100 CNG stations across the country, but many of these were built in the 1990′s as part of a passenger car initiative. As a result, fewer than 10% of these facilities are viable for commercial configuration due to storage limitations and excessive refueling times.

Keeping commercial vehicles on the road and out of the shop is crucial to any transportation business. NGV fleets additionally often require dedicated maintenance facilities or potentially costly retro-fits to existing repair locations in order to comply with fire prevention regulations. A majority of Ryder’s maintenance facilities are not up to code for NGVs, according to Perry.

Becoming Part of the Strategy

It is not all doom and gloom for natural gas vehicles. Perry told Breaking Energy that Ryder is very engaged in product development with manufacturers and have taken knowledge learned from their initial NGV offering several years ago and applied it to the company’s current expansion program which is based on strong customer demand.

With rock bottom natural gas prices, the economics are attractive, but Ryder says is needs to balance educating its customers with meeting their needs.

Bipartisan bills intended to boost the use of natural gas as a fuel source have languished in Congress, but use of the fuel has picked up regardless and plans are spreading to utilize it for a number of applications. Learn more on Breaking Energy here.

Ryder’s goal is a reliable service offering regardless of the fuel source, and acquiring vehicles, maintaining and disposing of them remains the company’s responsibility, not its customers.’ These factors will remain challenges until the NGV market matures, but Perry sees a growing trend: Whereas three years ago there was little manufacturer participation now he says there is tremendous attention.