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Natural Gas for Heavy-Duty Vehicles

In 2018, the European Commission presented a legislative proposal setting the first ever CO2 emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles in the European Union1. Previously, E.U. regulations only covered particulate matter and toxic gas emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, as well as, since 2008, CO2 emissions from passenger vehicles. An array of solutions are available to transportation carriers to help them comply with the new standards, including making continuous improvements to engines and petroleum-based fuels, enhancing aerodynamics and, above all, switching to new transportation fuels that emit less CO2, such as natural gas, electricity and hydrogen. Of these fuels, natural gas is currently the most advanced alternative to gasoline and diesel, and its use is growing rapidly in Europe and around the world.

Image of a truck. These heavy-duty vehicles are increasingly running on natural gas.
The number of heavy-duty vehicles powered by natural gas remains low in Europe but could grow over the coming decade. ©CECCONI MICHEL / TOTAL

Understanding the Acronyms

Natural gas vehicle (NGV) fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... is made up of approximately 97% methane (ch4)The main component of natural gas deposits and oil deposit gas caps. Methane is produced naturally by landfills.... It is the same gas sourced from the public network for heating and cooking in homes. NGV fuel comes in two forms: compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG)LNG is composed almost entirely of methane. Liquefying the gas reduces its initial volume by a factor of around 600.... If it is made from waste, such as farm, food and household waste, as well as sewage sludge, it is known as renewable natural gas (RNG) or biomethane.

470,000: The potential number of natural-gas-powered trucks in Europe in 2030 (versus 11,500 in 2018).

 

NGV is not to be confused with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)Combination of light hydrocarbons produced partly from the refining of crude oil (about 40%) and partly from the processing of natural gas.., which is a mixture of propane and butane and is stored in a liquid state, like in bottles for household use.

Today, CNG is the most widely used type of NGV fuel. It is stored at very high pressure (200 to 300 bar) in a suitable tank inside the vehicle. LNG, which is kept at a temperature of ‑161°C, has only been permitted by international regulations for use as a fuel since 2014. It requires cryogenic tanks, which are more complex and therefore more expensive, but smaller in size.

Various Uses

Widely used during World War II because of oil shortages, NGV fuel made its comeback at the end of the 1990s due to environmental concerns.

The technology was initially based on compressed gas. The driving range of vehicles running on CNG is limited to around 400 kilometers, which means this fuel is primarily used by short‑range fleets, such as company and government cars, urban commercial vehicles, garbage trucks and local delivery vans. As of August 2018, out of the 1,325,000 vehicles running on natural gas in Europe2, long-haul trucks accounted for just 11,500 of the total.

Outlook for Heavy-Duty Vehicles

The European Union has introduced various measures to encourage the expansion of natural gas transportation fuels, particularly LNG. LNG takes up significantly less room than CNG and allows for a driving range of more than 1,200 kilometers (comparable to that of dieselDiesel is the name of an internal combustion engine that works by compression-ignition...), meaning that it is well suited for long-distance travel.

According to the Natural & bio Gas Vehicle Association (NGVA) Europe3, the number of natural-gas-powered trucks could rise from 11,500 to 470,000 by 2030, with LNG-fueled trucks accounting for 280,000 of the total.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Natural gas has a clear advantage over diesel in terms of emissions of particulate matter (reduced by 84%), nitrogen oxide (reduced by 70%) and carbon monoxideCarbon monoxide is a carbon oxide with a chemical formula of CO. It is produced by the partial oxidation of carbon-containing compounds... (reduced by 37%)4. In addition, natural gas emits around 20% less CO2See Carbon Dioxid than diesel and reduces fuel consumption by approximately 15%. But its number one advantage is that it is carbon neutral when made from biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin..., as the amount of CO2 released as exhaust fumes is equivalent to the CO2 absorbed by the plant matter that was used to make the fuel. Nevertheless, biomethane is still only produced marginally in Europe, accounting for just 4% of all fuel consumed as of the end of 2017.

A disadvantage of natural-gas-powered trucks is their purchase price, which is 40% higher on average compared with diesel trucks. However, advocates of NGV fuel point out that natural gas is taxed at a low rate, whereas diesel is taxed at increasingly higher rates, and that gas offers better fuel economy. In the long run, these advantages offset the initial investment made by a transportation carrier.

Distribution Concerns

NGV fuel is the same gas used in homes for heating and cooking.

As for any new type of transportation fuel, the coverage of its distribution network is a key issue.

In August 2018, the European Union had less than 3,500 service stations equipped with NGV fuel (versus more than 100,000 for petroleum-based fuel). Italy is by far the most advanced country in the matter, with close to 1,000 natural-gas-equipped service stations, ahead of Germany and Sweden, which invested very early on in RNG. In France, some 300 service stations offer NGV fuel (versus 11,000 gasoline service stations), and more than 125 service stations are specially equipped for heavy-duty vehicles5.

NGV fuel distribution for heavy-duty vehicles depends on a number of different factors. The network in the United States, for example, was developed very early on, with service stations set up along fixed long-haul routes that are regularly traveled by heavy-duty vehicles. The low cost of natural gas and lack of competition from railway networks have also contributed to natural gas’ increased use in long-haul transportation.

 

 

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(1) According to the proposal, average CO2 emissions from new trucks registered in the European Union in 2025 must be 15% lower than in 2019, and in 2030, at least 30% lower than in 2019.