By Joe O’Brien

There is much speculation that electric-powered vehicles will one day be the standard of automotive transportation across the United States. When (and if) the shift to zero emissions occurs, it will need to be preceded by a transition period in which a mix of petroleum-based fuels and non-electric alternative fuels support the country’s transportation needs while electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure simultaneously expands nationwide.

This “bridge” model is especially true when it comes to commercial freight, which will likely be hauled by an amalgam of heavy-duty vehicles powered by different energy sources over the next five to 15 years. As a result, it isn’t completely obvious which heavy-duty alternative fuels marketers should add to their product offering. Here’s a look at three key factors that will influence the next generation of heavy-duty powertrains and the fuels that will be at the forefront of the transition to EVs.

 

Fleet hauling and maintenance requirements.

Trip range is such a critical consideration for over-the-road trucking, and it is affected by more factors than the fuel economy of the energy source alone. Freight load, terrain, vehicle aerodynamics and driver behavior impact how far a vehicle will be able to travel on a full load of fuel. As such, moving goods between cities by long-haul truck will remain dependent on liquid fuel, primarily diesel that is likely composed of at least 50% petroleum.

From a fleet operator’s perspective, vehicle maintenance is a major consideration regarding total cost of ownership. Internal combustion engines contain about 2,000 moving parts that are subject to failure; electric vehicles have just about 1% of that number of moving parts. Maintenance for internal combustion engines also requires ongoing replacement of fluids that brings both the cost of the replacement fluids and the labor required to perform the work.

 

Regional market leaders.

Moving goods within a city or expanded metropolitan area will become more dependent on fuels that can be produced easily and at a competitive price point in certain regions. These regional dynamics will create a “hub and spoke” system for moving goods.

For example, CNG will be attractive in areas like Texas, ethanol and biofuels in the Midwest, electricity where wind farms develop, and hydrogen will expand in states willing to invest in it like California. Only five plants currently produce renewable diesel in the United States, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center, and most of the fuel is used in California due to the economic benefits of the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS). That notwithstanding, U.S. production of renewable diesel is projected to expand.

 

Supply and dispensing infrastructure requirements.

While there is some overlap among the kinds of equipment needed to dispense alternative trucking fuels, the equipment considerations range from little-to-no changes needed for existing infrastructure (like for biodiesel and renewable diesel) to significant equipment expenditures.

For instance, the process for natural gas fueling includes accessing the gas pipeline at the municipal inlet gas connection, drying and compressing the gas and then routing the CNG for either storage or dispensing. CNG fueling infrastructure comprises some of the same types of components as petroleum fueling systems—namely storage tanks, underground piping and dispensers. But desiccant dryers are also needed to remove water or water vapor from the natural gas supply, and compressors are needed to compress the natural gas to the appropriate pressure to fill a vehicle.

Compressors and pipelines are also needed for the economical supply of hydrogen. In fact, because of recent efforts to reduce the expansion of fossil fuel pipelines, some pipeline owners are eyeing hydrogen to increase utilization of existing infrastructure.

Although distribution of ethanol is already pervasive within retail fuel, all components in the existing infrastructure have not been proven compatible with long-term exposure to high concentrations of ethanol. Most tanks are compatible with E100, but the same cannot be said of certain UST components. Fuel marketers should not assume that the distribution of high concentrations of ethanol would be a seamless transition.

Due to the multiple factors that can influence what emission-reducing drivetrain will best serve each individual heavy-duty hauling operation, fleets will begin to incorporate several different vehicle types that utilize different alternative energy sources. Consequently, industries providing fuel and service to heavy-duty vehicles should prepare for a diverse sales and service model. Diesel will continue to be used in some form for some time as adoption of lower emission fuels simultaneously increases.

But, just as the iconic trucking communication tool—the CB radio—has been supplanted by more advanced technologies like cellphones and GPS, today’s commercial fuel marketers, home fueling fleets and retailers will need to advance to meet the changing fuel needs of the trucking industry.

 

Joe O’Brien is vice president of marketing at Source North America Corporation. He has more than 25 years of experience in the petroleum equipment fuel industry. Contact him at jobrien@sourcena.com or visit sourcena.com to learn more.