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Alternative Fuel Options for Your Commercial Fleet

11/3/21
Grainger Editorial Staff

Businesses are receiving increased pressure from all directions to focus on sustainability and environmental concerns. For those operating delivery trucks, buses or another type of commercial fleet with combustion engines, emerging alternative fuel sources could provide a way to demonstrate their commitment to helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The federal Energy Policy Act of 1992 defines nine different fuels as “alternative.” The following six are the most common options for converting a traditional fleet from gasoline or diesel. Each will have positives and negatives, both in environmental impact and cost.

Electric

The number of registered electric passenger cars doubled to 10 million worldwide between 2018 and 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. Now, U.S.-based automakers – legacy companies as well as startups – are aggressively pursuing production of electric delivery vans, according to Business Insider.

Moving to an electric fleet requires buying new vehicles rather than converting existing ones. Purchasing an electric-only vehicle tends to be more expensive than comparable gas- or diesel-powered vehicles, though federal and state tax incentives may be available according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Operational costs can be lower for an EV, since they do not need oil changes and related maintenance. Fuel economy for an electric vehicle is often expressed through miles per gallon equivalent, or MPGe, as a way to compare the per-gallon costs to combustion engines. Some startup manufacturers promote an MPGe of between 40 and 75 for delivery vans, compared to 20 or less for most gas-powered delivery vans. Emissions are at or near zero.

An electric vehicle’s range – the length it can go between charges – will vary based on factors including battery size and weather but is usually less than the range for a gas-powered vehicle, according to FuelEconomy.gov. There were almost 51,000 public charging stations in the U.S. and Canada as of October 2021, but they are far outnumbered by traditional gas stations, so this is a consideration for vehicles that may cover at least 100 miles a day. The U.S. Department of Energy provides an extensive guide for setting up a workplace charging infrastructure.  

Natural Gas

A Chicago produce company renowned for its sustainable practices switched its entire distribution fleet to natural gas, and the owner raves about the results.

Compressed natural gas (CNG), liquified natural gas (LNG) and renewable natural gas (RNG) each can be utilized as transportation fuel. Public transit buses in major cities such as Dallas and Phoenix use natural gas fleets, but there are not wide varieties of native natural gas delivery vehicles available. Conversion kits are available for combustion engines to run on natural gas, but the U.S. Department of Energy recommends that a qualified service retrofitter (QSR) should do the work to avoid running afoul of EPA regulations.

Natural gas is notably less expensive than diesel or gasoline and prices have been steady for the last decade at just over $2 per gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE), according to the U.S. Department of Energy. A GGE is a unit of measurement that allows for a comparison to gasoline or diesel. Fuel economy, however, lags behind combustion engines. There are less than 400 natural gas fueling stations around the U.S. but businesses can, like that Chicago produce company, set up their own fueling station. A study from the Department of Energy suggests the set-up cost can range from about $50,000 to serve a very small fleet to almost $2 million for the largest stations.

Natural gas vehicles have tailpipe emissions in line with gasoline or diesel engines with emission controls but far lower life-cycle emissions, especially when using RNG, which is produced from organic materials. Life-cycle emissions represent all the emissions from the production of and use of a fuel, not just those associated with running a vehicle, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Biodiesel

Produced from natural substances such as vegetable oils, soybeans and even recycled grease from restaurants, biodiesel fuel blends can substitute for traditional diesel fuel in vehicles that operate on diesel. For transportation fuel, biodiesel is typically blended with regular diesel fuel at a 20/80 percent ratio, called B20. Even a blend as low as 5% biodiesel (B5) is ASTM-approved for use in light- and heavy-duty cars and trucks, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Fuel economy may dip slightly, about 2% for a B20 blend, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Per-gallon prices are comparable; biodiesel had traditionally been slightly more expensive but the average price for B20 biodiesel in July 2021 was about 20 cents per gallon less than regular diesel. There are only about 330 fueling stations around the U.S. according to the Department of Energy and almost half are in Minnesota.

Unlike electric, biodiesel is not a zero-emission fuel. B20 does reduce greenhouse gases by about 15%. It also has better lubrication than petroleum diesel and is less combustible if spilled, according to the Department of Energy.

Ethanol

Ethanol is produced from plant materials, primarily corn. According to the U.S. Grain Council, the country is capable producing almost 16 billion gallons of ethanol annually -- more than can be used. It’s blended into regular gasoline at a 10% ratio, but higher mixes such as E85 and E15 also have application.

E85 can be used in “flexible fuel” vehicles, which also can run on gasoline. For fleet purposes, flex fuel vehicles are typically delivery vans and small trucks. The fuel’s retail price is often about 10% cheaper than gasoline on a per-gallon basis, but it has less energy and so delivers slightly less fuel economy. It’s found at many gas stations throughout the upper Midwest and Great Lakes states but is harder to find in the northwest U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The sustainability value of E85 is found not in tailpipe emissions but in the production, because ethanol is derived from corn and other plant materials instead of fossil fuel extraction. Greenhouse gases are about 34% lower from corn-based ethanol compared to fossil fuels over the entire life cycle of production, according to the Department of Energy.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen is plentiful and produces zero emissions as a transportation fuel. The driving range for light-duty vehicles is typically more than 300 miles, fuel economy can be close to 70 MPGe and refueling takes just a few minutes.

However, it’s still an emerging transportation solution and there are almost as many hurdles as advantages. There are very few commercial vehicles that utilize hydrogen available in the U.S. – according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, less than 12,000 total vehicles have been sold and leased in the U.S. as of October 2021. The fuel cells that use hydrogen to power these vehicles are still expensive to produce, and there is no fueling infrastructure outside of California.

While hydrogen is highly flammable, it is considered no more dangerous on a vehicle than gasoline. According to Edmunds.com, hydrogen tanks on a vehicle have less overall energy than a tank of gasoline, and the lighter-than-air substance quickly dissipates in event of a spill or leak.

Propane

The fuel that lets you cook burgers and hot dogs on your grill can also provide power to your delivery trucks or bus fleet. Also called liquified propane, or LP, it is a clean-burning fuel, domestically produced and relatively inexpensive.

At the end of 2016 there were only about 200,000 propane autogas fleet vehicles on the road, according to the Propane Education and Research Council. There are only a few propane-burning vehicles in production but combustion engines can be converted to run on propane. The octane content of propane is higher than gasoline, which has the potential to extend engine life, according to the Department of Energy.

Propane is less expensive than gasoline on a per-gallon basis, but its fuel economy is weaker and the net cost is slightly higher, according to the Department of Energy. There are more than 1,200 vehicle-fueling propane stations spread evenly across the country; setting up private fueling can cost anywhere from about $20,000 to serve the smallest fleets up to $300,000 for the largest, according to the Propane Education and Research Council.

Tailpipe emissions of propane are on par with those from combustion engines with modern emissions controls. A model developed by the Argonne National Laboratory finds that propane use in vehicles reduces overall greenhouse gases by 13%.

Visit the Sustainable Practices page for more tips on improving your facility and your operation.

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.

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