UPS expands alternative fuel truck fleet in US

UPS has purchased 48 long-distance trucks powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG), to boost its alternative energy fleet in the southwestern United States. The vehicles will be based in Las Vegas, Nevada, where UPS is working with alternative fuels company Clean Energy Fuels Corporation to set up a new LNG filling station.

The Kenilworth heavy-duty tractor vehicles were double the cost of diesel alternatives, including LNG drive systems from Canadian firm Westport HD.

However, UPS said the fuel itself is cheaper than diesel, with a good supply of natural gas in the US.

The project is also expected to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25% compared to the conventional option, although they do use around 5% diesel as an ignition agent.

The new trucks form part of a broader project to establish a LNG corridor between Las Vegas and Ontario, California, where UPS currently has a facility at which 11 existing LNG tractor-trailer vehicles are based.

The project is supported by the US Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), an air pollution watchdog in Southern California. UPS has been awarded $3.9m in grants towards the vehicles, including $1.5m from the SCAQMD.

The new filling station next to the UPS site in Las Vegas is expected to open in the first half of 2011, with California-based Clean Energy Fuels supplying around 1.2m gallons of fuel each year to UPS through a seven-year contract.

UPS told Post&Parcel that its current LNG fleet based in Ontario is already used on the route to and from Las Vegas, the vehicles having a 600-mile range that means the round-trip can be completed on a single tank.

Spokesman Michael French said establishing a second LNG base in Las Vegas would mean opening up alternative-fuelled routes to a much larger extent in the western US region.

And, as LNG availability expands in the US, he said UPS was expecting to steadily expand its LNG fleet in future.

James Harger, Chief Marketing Officer at Clean Energy, which produces its LNG fuel at a production plant in Boron, California, said his company was looking to develop more publicly-available LNG filling stations in the region to respond to demand from the trucking industry.

He said: “This UPS station project is a major step toward realizing our goal to create a Southwest LNG truck fueling corridor that will extend along major truck transport routes from San Diego to Salt Lake City.”

“Rolling laboratory”

UPS currently has more than 1,100 natural gas-powered vehicles in service, but most of these are delivery vehicles using Compressed Natural Gas, which is not as dense a fuel as LNG so is generally appropriate for short distances.

“At the moment, LNG is the only suitable alternative to diesel for the really heavy, long-haul tractor trailers you see on the highway,” said Mike Britt, UPS’s director of vehicle engineering.

“As a fuel, LNG is very dense, providing a large amount of energy for the amount of space it occupies. This makes LNG an excellent potential fuel for large trucks that need to travel a long distance before refueling.”

UPS is also making use of other alternative fuel technologies as part of a “rolling laboratory philosophy” that aims to cut the environmental impacts of its fleet while bolstering energy security. But, while it is testing out a range of options, the ultimate goal is not to pick a single “winner”.

“If you look at these technologies, you notice that different technologies have different advantages,” French said.

“For example, we have found that hybrid electric vehicles are excellent for urban deliveries where there are stop-start routes, but if that is applied to rural areas it is not going to take advantage of its electric engine very much.”

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