Infrastructure is likely the key to any successful alternative fuel. It does not matter how efficient or inexpensive a fuel option is if you cannot purchase and use it.
There are challenges with any advanced fuel type, ranging from availability to cost.
“Infrastructure is expanding as National Alternative Fuels Corridors — including 220 heavily traveled interstates covering more than 145,000 miles in 49 states, plus Washington, D.C. — continue to develop. The Michigan to Montana I-94 corridor is also in progress. This will be a vital link for regional and long-haul vehicle fleets, passing through major cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and many small towns. These corridors will expand the availability of propane, biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas, and electric charging stations,” said Christopher Lyon, director of Fleet Relations for NTEA – The Association for the Work Truck Industry.
It’s essential to understand a fleet’s duty cycle when considering infrastructure.
“For example, on electric or compressed natural gas applications, is there a set period of downtime that could be used for charging or slow fill on natural gas? This would dictate the type and cost of infrastructure needed,” Lyon noted.
Biodiesel: From Coast to Coast
Biodiesel utilizes the same infrastructure as petroleum diesel.
“You can find the better, cleaner fuel at most of the same retail locations as regular diesel. Biodiesel with blends over 5% are required to be labeled at the pump, so look for the black and blue biodiesel sticker when filling up,” said Scott Fenwick, technical director for the National Biodiesel Board (NBB). “However, while biodiesel can be found coast to coast, there is immense opportunity to still expand the market and ensure accessibility, even in the U.S.”
Fenwick noted significant demand to get the industry balanced across the nation. The key is that infrastructure needs to go where the volume is.
“Specifically, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions alone have the potential of growing to be a 7-billion-gallon industry by 2050 when filling the demand for home heating fuel,” he added.
Fenwick explained the USDA Higher Blends Infrastructure Program (HBIIP) provides promise to the biodiesel, renewable diesel, and Bioheat fuel industry.
“With intentions to make up to $100 million available under cost-sharing grants, and $14 million reserved to support biodiesel and renewable diesel blends above 5%, there is a great opportunity for the industry to finally reach a long-demanded market and achieve industry goals,” he said. “This Infrastructure Program was sorely needed for the biodiesel, renewable diesel, and Bioheat fuel market for years. The program is critical to move more product to growing regions, such as the Northeast, to meet industry demands finally.”
Gene Gebolys, CEO of World Energy, shared that biodiesel and renewable diesel fuels are a drop-in solution requiring no engine modification or infrastructure change.
“The great thing about them is that they can be used NOW as an immediate decrease in carbon emissions,” he explained.
But, there are no cookie-cutter solutions that work for all fleets. Each one has its own characteristics. And Fenwick added that an important issue to understand is that the infrastructure challenges mentioned above are for pipelines and large fuel terminals across the country to assist them in handling larger volumes and high blends of product that can be further blended and distributed.
“For a fleet customer, no additional changes or modifications are needed to any vehicles or fueling equipment that will be handling blends of B-20 (20% biodiesel) or less,” Fenwick concluded.
Electric: A Growing Infrastructure
The biggest challenge for fleet managers considering electric vehicle charging infrastructure is a lack of knowledge.
“Since electric vehicle charging infrastructure varies significantly in terms of type, characteristics, performance, and cost, fleet managers might consider infrastructure selection one of the more daunting parts of adding EVs to their fleet,” said Nate Valaik, e-Mobility product marketing manager for Gilbarco Veeder-Root.
Though the general fueling infrastructure to support a wide-scale transition to electric transportation has grown considerably throughout the past few years, it still has a ways to go before it will be in a place for mass electric adoption.
“At AMPLY, we understand what brands are reliable and work with various vehicle types. We pass that advice on to our customers to take the headaches out of hardware selection. This includes providing financing options from AMPLY, grants, or the customer to make charging hardware purchases that get a fleet electrification program up and running,” said Vic Shao, CEO & Founder of AMPLY Power.
For large fleet deployments requiring significant power, the most prominent challenge is the lead time for utility upgrades.
“It’s important to plan ahead and work closely with the local utility. If you have multiple sites, we can analyze customer-side and utility capacity to determine how many vehicles can be charged before triggering an upgrade. Power management software is key to being able to efficient utilization of electrical capacity,” said David Peterson, Director, Fleet Solutions for ChargePoint.
Think about your fleet’s use-case, or how vehicles operate on a day-to-day basis.
“This information is the biggest determinant of the infrastructure you will need to power your fleet. Once you understand which chargers you will need, along with the quantity, you can start to consider the electrical infrastructure required to support your EV chargers,” Valaik explained.
Additionally, plan for your near-term and long-term need.
“We can’t stress enough the importance of planning for electrification beyond just the initial vehicle purchase, and to anticipate how EVs will be added to the fleet in subsequent years. This will save you both money and time, both in terms of construction, but also for planning ahead for any key utility upgrades,” Peterson said.
And, for electric infrastructure, work with an expert, or team of experts, to find the optimal hardware for your fleet’s specific needs.
“Experts in this arena can help design the depot layout for precise charging access, as well as negotiate any rate adjustments with utilities. It is important to look at the entire solution from beginning to end. And, talk to your electric utility company about their fleet electrification program and the expertise they can provide at no cost,” Shao said.
Ethanol: A Public Option
Ethanol (E-10, E-15, and E-85) is different than many other fuel options. Fleets can typically use public fuel stations to purchase the fuel and avoid the high costs of infrastructure.
Robert White, VP of Industry Relations for the Renewable Fuels Association explained a few differences between the blends:
- E-10: There are really no challenges to this fuel blend, readily available nationwide.
- E-15: A relatively new fuel, E-15 is available at more than 2,100 stations for 2001 model-year and newer vehicles. This typically does not require a lot of capital investment if done with new builds or renovations. Otherwise, each fuel station is different and must be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
- E-85: This variant is limited to flex fuel vehicles and available at over 5,100 stations across the country. Despite its slow start, E-85’s growth rate is high and the fuel is spreading to new areas for the first time.
Natural Gas: Well Established & Growing
While the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure is already well established nationwide, there can be sporadic limitations for long haul carriers along specific remote interstate corridors.
“For transit, refuse, and short-haul freight and return to base fleets, a mature infrastructure of more than 1,700 stations should meet the needs of most NGV users,” said Paul Sandsted, director of Technology & Sustainability for NGVAmerica.
Sandsted recommended fleets looking to install infrastructure analyze the cost for the refueling equipment against the number of vehicles in the fleet to determine the timeframe for a return on investment (ROI). “For small fleets it may be more cost-effective to contract with an existing fueling station nearby, even if it is privately owned,” he said.
The costs of building a natural gas fuel station can discourage fleets.
“The average station is a more than $1 million investment,” said Sahar Kamali, director of Business Development for Clean Energy Renewables. “CNG stations require a gas line which may be unavailable (especially in rural areas).”
For fleets looking to natural gas, Kamali recommended utilizing public access stations until your fleet’s fuel consumption justifies the investment in a private fuel station and to take advantage of available grant funding programs.
“Also, set a realistic time frame. Station development can be delayed due to things outside of your control. Most commonly, utility connections and AHJ permitting requirements,” Kamali added.
Propane Autogas: Customizable & Scalable
Propane autogas infrastructure can be affordable and is often less expensive than installing gasoline or diesel infrastructure, according to the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).
“Propane autogas infrastructure is also designed to eliminate any potential challenges. Installation is simple, with customizable options to meet the demands of any fleet. It is also scalable and can easily grow to accommodate increasing fleet size with more fuel storage tanks or larger ones,” said Steve Whaley, director of autogas business development for PERC.
In most instances, fleets can choose to lease the refueling infrastructure from their supplier to lower or sometimes eliminate capital expenditure costs.
“Propane suppliers and infrastructure providers will work with you to determine the best solution for your fleet,” he added.
Options are available for fleets that want to take advantage of propane autogas’s benefits, but may not be able to install permanent infrastructure. Many propane suppliers offer mobile refueling options with a bobtail delivery truck. There are also public and private refueling networks for fleets of all sizes. Refueling networks provide 24/7 security and convenience and use a card lock system to track fuel usage and costs per vehicle.
When it comes to installing propane autogas infrastructure for your fleet, the first tip Whaley shared is to find a local propane supplier and infrastructure supplier who can talk you through all of the refueling infrastructure options available to you, including leasing options. They can help you select the right choice for your fleet.
“Finally, talk with your supplier about a fuel contract. In many cases, fleet managers can secure a long-term fuel contract with their propane autogas supplier, locking in the price of the fuel regardless of market fluctuations,” Whaley said.
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