CALGARY, Alta. -- Natural gas continues to wriggle its way into the transportation industry’s heart as a fuel of choice, the latest example of which is Bison Transport, which has entered into a five-year agreement with Shell Canada to run 15 liquefied natural gas (LNG) tractors in Alberta.
It’s not only a new move for Bison, it’s also the first step in launching Shell’s LNG refuelling infrastructure in Wild Rose Country and will see Bison using Shell’s Flying J outlets in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer to refuel its LNG fleet once all is up and running.
Bison’s LNG fleet – or at least part of it – was already cooking with gas as of late January. That’s according to Trevor Fridfinnson, Bison’s vice-president of western operations, who said that “a convergence of factors have made it potentially economically viable,” noting that the company thinks the move could be the right thing for the industry as a whole, from a sustainability aspect. “You put those factors together and it lined up as now is a time when we’re willing to go down that path.”
A few operations have made similar commitments in other parts of Canada, but Bison claims this is the first time a company operating in Alberta has done a conversion on this scale. And as Fridfinnson said, it made sense to move now. “One of the biggest things that relates to fuel is supply and infrastructure and so forth,” he noted. “We had a willing partner in Shell that was heavily investing in natural gas, so the supply is here and we have applications with a regional density in Alberta that lend themselves to this.”
Bison is initially targeting its LCV application, pulling twin 53-ft. trailers at a full 140,000-lb GVW, consuming “a fair amount of fuel,” Fridfinnson said, but which “from an overall perspective are very fuel-efficient because we’re moving two trailers with a similar amount of fuel. And that’s how you can drive the economics of it: if you can burn enough of the fuel you can overcome the capital costs involved, which are significant in this case.”
Fridfinnson also said that, while the 15 trucks planned for Bison’s initial nat-gas foray are spec’d out to be LCV trucks, they won’t necessarily be used only to pull the twin trailers. “If there are scenarios where we can augment and add some additional miles in the same truck in a single trailer application, we will do so. But the LCV is the base model that we expect to use.”
Initial routes are principally Calgary to Edmonton and back, which can be accomplished on a single tank of fuel. And that “round-trip on a tank” aspect is part of why Bison didn’t have to wait for the Flying Js to become gas-friendly before launching the initiative.
“Shell has put a temporary fueller on-site for us here in Calgary to get us started,” Fridfinnson said, “and that is here until the rest of the infrastructure is built up to deliver it. Then they’ll move it.”
Bison had six of the 15 trucks in operation by late January, all of which are brand new Peterbilt 386s with the Westport GX 15-litre engine.
“We’re renewing our fleet anyway,” Fridfinnson said, noting that “we replaced 275 tractors last year, so that’s part of what we do.” But getting to drive a spanking new truck is a nice carrot for drivers, too, as incentive to get them to embrace the move to gas.
“We’re trying to make participating in this program by doing it in a new truck part of the appeal to our driving group. We’re fortunate that we have a culture in general that embraces change.”
That said, change brings with it uncertainties. “As with anything else,” Fridfinnson said, “there are uncertainties and different things to learn about the truck – how to fuel it and how to be mindful of it – so, put simply, the reception (from drivers) has been good but we’ve got things that we need to continue to work through to make sure we get our training right.”
That includes passing on new knowledge gained about working with LNG. “As we learn more about how you operate with natural gas, we have to make sure the experience remains positive,” Fridfinnson said.
And even though only a few trucks are involved in this conversion compared with the vast number that Bison actually operates, it shouldn’t really be looked upon as merely a pilot project.
“At 15 trucks, it’s really more than that,” Fridfinnson said. “We’re trying to demonstrate that we’re motivated to make this work and to demonstrate it on a reasonable scale.”
Bison is also planning for a time when LNG is more widely available. “We’re taking a look at LNG in other jurisdictions,” Fridfinnson said, “most notably in British Columbia because they’ve got an aggressive program through their natural gas utility that is trying to convince transportation companies to take the plunge by covering off a certain amount of the incremental cost associated.”
That government support wasn’t available in Alberta, where the deal is between private sector operations only – a fact Fridfinnson finds unfortunate. “With all new technologies, you sometimes need those incentives to get over the hump,” he said, “and I think that’s probably why we haven’t heard about a number of other fleets following suit. And given the amount of natural gas in this province and the importance of natural gas to this province, it’s a bit surprising.”
All gas, all the time?
Despite Bison’s bullishness, Fridfinnson doesn’t see a completely LNG-fuelled fleet anywhere on the horizon. “It’s not realistic probably for any reasonable timeframe,” he said. “The infrastructure has got to be really significantly built out and there are operating nuances of natural gas that are really going to make infrastructure the critical piece. If you cannot have ready access to it like you do with diesel, then you run the risk of having operating challenges – for instance, if you don’t keep the fuel cool and do all the rest of it, then it loses its effectiveness.”
Fridfinnson said he thinks estimates that 40% of commercial vehicles could be using natural gas in 10 years are premature, though he does anticipate a trend. “It’s not going to be an insignificant number,” he said. “There’s definitely room for some significant uptake.”
And of course the chicken and egg factor will definitely be in play, in that you can’t run a lot of natural gas trucks until someone is there to sell you the stuff when and where you need it. But even there, change is coming.
“The liquefaction capability takes money,” Fridfinnson said, “and Shell’s investment in Alberta at Jumping Pound, which will be up around the end of the year, will make them able to draw directly from their facility here. That will make a difference.”
All this talk about moving to natural gas may seem a tad ironic, since the stuff has been around as a fuel for years – as a supposedly dwindling resource. But as the old song said: “To everything there is a season,” so maybe now it really is natural gas’s “Turn, Turn, Turn” to be in the spotlight.
The irony isn’t lost on Fridfinnson. “Five years ago (our move to LNG) would have been harebrained,” he admitted. “There were people going around trying to get you to sign up for $10 fixed natural gas costs for your house and there was a finite amount (of gas) and so forth, but things have changed and the general consensus is that there’s a 100-year plus supply of the stuff given the way they can extract it now. It’s not like it’s brand new and it’s certainly more widely subscribed to around the world than it has been in North America, so it’s just a matter of finding the tipping point to get a wide scale conversion going.”
Bison has obviously made the assessment that the tipping point is very close. “We like to say that we’re not on the bleeding edge but we’re not far behind it,” Fridfinnson said.
As for Bison’s talked-about expansion of its gas-powered fleet to British Columbia, Fridfinnson said the company will probably make that decision later this year.
“We’ve been actively looking at that angle and seeing whether or not that’s the next logical place to extend it,” he said. “If we can get between Calgary and Vancouver then that’s viable, but how do you make sure that you have a mid-point fuelling option that’s going to work for that?”
Runs strictly through the Lower Mainland aren’t really in the cards, because “the big thing for us is that the way you recoup the costs of the heavy-duty engine conversion is that you do it in an application that burns enough fuel to generate enough volume of savings,” Fridfinnson said. “That becomes the hitch point.”
As for when Flying J will actually start selling gas in Alberta, Fridfinnson said the latest information he had is that they should be on-stream in Calgary by the end of February, with the Sherwood Park outlet on-stream by the end of March.
Fridfinnson said if everything works out as Bison hopes, the company will pay off its incremental cost of conversion, which he estimates at about $90,000 per truck, in two years. But he’s also mindful of Murphy’s Law. “There always tend to be deviators from plan and most of them are cost creators as opposed to cost inhibitors,” he said, “so we have to be mindful of that and we’ve budgeted on what we think is a realistic case scenario. But if we encounter certain challenges that could move as well.”
In the meantime, it’s full-speed ahead – figuratively, anyway – in Bison’s experiment with using LNG to propel its power units. That doesn’t mean they’ll just press on, however, expanding the LNG fleet regardless of its experiences in this learning phase. “We’re going to be actively assessing this thing throughout the entire life cycle,” Fridfinnson said.