Natural gas vehicles could become a staple on North Dakota roads in the next three to four years, said Robert Moffitt of North Dakota Clean Cities Coalition.
Moffitt touted the natural resource as an alternative to diesel fuel at an oil industry infrastructure conference in Bismarck last week.
“It’s not going to replace petroleum, but there is a niche market for this,” he said. “There is a role for natural gas.”
Moffitt said natural gas vehicles create another market for the fuel that for the past year has been flared off in the state at a rate of 30 percent.
“The biggest obstacle is someone has to go first,” he said. “Once they do, others are going to follow.”
Another speaker at the conference, John McDougal, encouraged the use of natural gas by the oil and gas industry to fuel its own vehicles in North Dakota’s oil field, “turning it into a more valuable fuel.”
Moffitt said most oil and gas companies are in favor of finding a use for the gas rather than burning it off. The low market price for the fuel that makes it more feasible to flare rather than collect is also what makes it such a good option for vehicle fuel, he said.
McDougal said the liquid natural gas equivalent to a gallon of diesel fuel is about $1 less. Moffitt said compressed natural gas is about half the cost of its equivalency in diesel. He said supply of natural gas is so high he is not worried about increased demand raising the price.
Natural gas is also cleaner burning. McDougal said liquid natural gas emissions are 28 percent less than diesel.
For those reasons, Moffitt said he thinks when the time comes for the garbage truck he saw driving down the street in Bismarck that morning to be replaced, it will be exchanged for a natural-gas-powered one.
Waste Management, which has operations in Bismarck, is already using natural gas vehicles in the Twin Cities.
Julie Ketchum, a spokeswoman for Waste Management, said the company is adding trucks and fueling stations in high population centers nationwide. She said the company has a goal to replace 20 trucks a year with ones run on natural gas and open 17 fuel stations annually. The company just recently reached 50 stations operating nationwide.
Ketchum said the company is focusing on high population areas “where air quality is poor, and in the case of the Twin Cities, bumping up against non-attainment” because it believes the trucks will help better the air quality. A larger customer base also makes operations more financially feasible.
“We’re pretty far out from the standpoint of operating natural gas vehicles in North Dakota,” she said.
Ketchum said the trucks are more expensive but the rate of return is rapid. She said the filling stations are “more expensive than what you might think” because of factors like infrastructure requirements and safety equipment. Whether a business can be successful with natural gas vehicles depends on the amount of business it does and the size of its fleet.
“The main benefit is that it is much cheaper than diesel,” she said. “It’s less about fuel efficiency and more about cost-effectiveness.”
Moffitt said a station could cost up to $1 million for a pump on the high end or a few hundred thousand on the low side. He said, for compressed natural gas vehicles, buyers should expect to add $5,000 to $10,000 to the price. For liquid natural gas vehicles, that number is higher. For most companies, he said it takes about three to four years to see a return on investment.
Moffitt said natural gas is most effective for vehicle fleets with short runs, like streetsweepers, plows, school buses and local delivery trucks.
“They use a lot of diesel, cover a lot of miles, but always come back to the same place,” he said.
There are about 120,000 natural gas vehicles on the road today nationwide and about 1,200 fuel stations, Moffitt said.
North Dakota has two natural gas fueling stations, but Moffitt said they were built in the 1980s and are undersized. Moffitt said eight spread out evenly across the state would provide ideal coverage.
“I can see already it’s spreading,” he said.