By Joanne Tucker
With robust plans to add more alternative-fuel vehicles to fleet — but in a competitive service climate where many important priorities vie for funding resources — Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) uses its best weapon of defense to mitigate the challenges: a consistent vehicle replacement cycle.
Encompassing 20,000 sq.-miles of service territory and 48 maintenance garage locations from Central to Southern California, SoCalGas has a fleet of more than 4,300 vehicles, from light to heavy duty. Of the total fleet, nearly 1,000 are natural gas vehicles (NGVs) powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), according to Tony Orta, SoCalGas manager of asset management, who has been with SoCalGas for 35 years.
SoCalGas By the Numbers
“We’re looking to fully saturate our locations, which have on-site fueling, with natural gas vehicles,” Orta says, adding that SoCalGas plans to acquire and place into service an additional 1,000 NGV’s by 2016, which would increase the percentage of NGV’s it fleet to 45% of its total over-the-road fleet count.
“In today’s environment, natural gas vehicles are becoming more and more cost-effective," Orta says. "With a differential in price approaching $2 per gallon gasoline equivalent, we believe customers and our environment will benefit from vehicles that run on cleaner-burning natural gas. Knowing this helps us maintain the momentum and support for this important program.”
So how does a regulated utility with limited funding add those additional NGVs in just a few short years?
Replace, Replace, Replace
“You cannot maximize your fleet with cleaner or more fuel efficient vehicles if you don’t have a consistent replacement cycle,” Orta says.
To keep consistency, it’s about policy. SoCalGas currently has a vehicle policy to support its clean powered fleet strategy and fuel efficiency efforts, which requires the replacement of all passenger vehicles with either a MPG class-leading hybrid or, preferably, a dedicated CNG-powered vehicle.
SoCalGas keeps fleet vehicles in service 8-9 years. According to Orta, the vehicles stay in service for that long because of the utility body upfitting costs, but with such a large fleet, “there are always vehicles being replaced each year,” he says.
Orta says that a consistent replacement plan, which includes standardization by job classification, helps SoCalGas mitigate vehicle order-to-delivery delays, particularly those caused by the added time required for utility body upfits and CNG conversions. For the anticipated delivery delays, he adds that this strategy allows the utility to maintain a flow of incoming vehicles to maintain maximum vehicle operational uptime.
“Everything is about maximizing standardization opportunities, internal client communication, and supplier coordination,” Orta says.
SoCalGas is also currently rightsizing its fleet to align with workforce needs and utilization. This process is a key business strategy for fleets, and should be done approximately every three to four years to maintain a cost effective fleet size and mitigate under-utilization, Orta says.
Working with the Products
As a multi-OEM fleet, replacing vehicles with an eye toward sustainability can take a lot of shopping around — though it is getting easier, Orta says, as manufacturers begin to offer more and more CNG products direct from the factory.
SoCalGas also strives to meet or exceed California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulations, which mandate certain rules on utility fleets and their diesel particulate matter emissions. To meet this challenge, SoCalGas partners with heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers to displace diesel powered trucks with clean burning, dedicated CNG vehicles, and which in some cases involves OEMs and third-party conversion companies.
SoCalGas also works with the OEMs on these issues, as well as ways to maintain the OEM warranties after an upfit or CNG conversion has been performed. “When you just need the chassis and then want to add CNG with a utility body — that can place the factory warranties at risk if it’s not done correctly,” Orta says, adding that maintaining these warranties as a part of cost savings is an important factor for SoCalGas.
Other challenges that the utility works through with the OEMs include CNG tank type and configurations and ensuring technicians are trained on properly inspecting and maintaining the vehicles and tanks.
Supporting Natural Gas
In addition to using its replacement cycle and policy to grow its NGV numbers, of its 52 garage locations, SoCalGas has 26 garages with on-site CNG fueling stations and is looking to grow that number as well. Orta says that staying on top of available funding and grants can be time consuming, but can be worth the effort particularly when it comes to infrastructure.
SoCalGas’ on-site fueling stations allow operators to manage fill times, with both slow- and fast-fill options available. Some operators may fill up at night while home-start operators may come and do a quick fill during the day. “Operators come in and there’s no wait time for fueling — and that for us is key,” Orta says.
SoCalGas is also involved in several natural gas initiatives, such as the Drive Natural Gas Initiative, which is a collaboration of organizations and companies, including the American Gas Association (AGA) and America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA). The collaboration aims to promote the role of natural gas as a viable transportation fuel through tangible projects and initiatives.
And of course for SoCalGas, as a natural gas distributor, supporting natural gas just makes sense. “NGVs are up to 80% cleaner than gasoline or diesel and more NGVs means reduced emissions and cleaner air for all of us,” Orta says. “They also encourage our customers to consider the benefits of NGVs.”