The State of Alternate Fuels for Commercial Work Vehicles
July 19, 2017

It’s no secret that Western Canada is the oilfield that fuels our country, but with the downturn of the fossil fuels industries in the last few years, the questions for the industry are no longer “how long can it last?” but “when will it come back?”

Despite the economic trauma that many of our residents have struggled with, technology continues to develop new and exciting options for how vehicles – and especially trucks and vans – are powered.  At Expertec, we know that the lion’s share of the vehicles we see are going to be fueled by gasoline or diesel, but despite historically low fuel prices, the simple fact is that fuel prices will go up.

When they do, the economy of Western Canada will do two things – put cash back into the economy and create the need to deploy new technology in the hunt for alternate fuels.

So what are they?  Well, for starters, “Alternate fuels” means a lot of things to a lot of people.  In general, they fall into two distinct categories – those based on hydrocarbons and those based on truly new technology.

When the good times comes back, here’s a list of what you’re going to be putting in your “gas tank.”

  • Ethanol-based gasoline – Ethanol is an alcohol that is commonly blended with gasoline to “stretch” the supply. The result is a lower-octane fuel that can be run in gasoline vehicles with the proper tuning.  The benefit of ethanol-blended fuels is that the base supply can be sourced within the country – from the crude oil to the corn that makes the ethanol.  Vehicles using ethanol still behave virtually identically to “regular” gasoline powered vehicles, but the overall fuel economy is still lower due to the lower octane count.
  • Biodiesel – One of the main reasons that Rudolf Diesel invented his Diesel engine in the 1890s was to allow the use of nearly any oil-based fuel in an internal combustion engine. From cottonseed oil to coal oil, the mechanical diesel engine has used it to provide power.  In the coming years, biodiesel technology will be rapidly replacing crude-based diesel and, given the fact that virtually any oil – from fossil fuels to renewable crop oils, can be utilized, as the injection technology continues to advance, we expect to see biodiesel reigning supreme for the medium and heavy-duty trucks favored by construction and the trades.  The advantage?  Many types of alternative fuels that can be run in a diesel engine can be used today when coupled with the right injection pump, meaning a low cost of entry into this field.
  • Compressed natural gas and propane – These two alternative fuels comprise one of the largest options for fleet-based retrofitting. Although both require a secondary fueling system and induction system into the engine, both propane and compressed natural gas – when coupled with the necessary fueling stations – give fleet operators a fantastic option for pennies on the dollar versus traditional fuels.  The downside?  Fueling stations are limited unless they are incorporated into an operations base.  If you have the ability to secure the tanks in a fleet garage or live near public fueling stations, then both CNG and propane offer exciting opportunities and the chance to recoup your investment over the useful life of the vehicle.

Non-fuel based “fuels”

  • Electricity – Using electricity to power vehicles is nothing new, but the technology to do so efficiently is a truly new frontier. With the success of smaller vehicles like the Tesla, the Chevrolet Volt, and the Nissan Leaf, the ideas for using electricity to power vehicles have proven their concept, but creating powerful enough systems to power heavy-duty trucks and vans is truly the “next generation” for electric vehicles.  We are confident that as the battery technology and the charging capacity advances, the first electric trucks and vans will be seen on the jobsite.  In fact, Tesla has already begun the conversation and indicated that the first electric pickups will be introduced in the next 18-24 months.
  • Hydrogen Cells – Straight out of science fiction movies, the hydrogen cell can be hard to wrap your mind around. You fill up the “tank” with (usually) hydrogen gas and through a series of chemical reactions, the vehicle is powered.  In many ways, the technology driving these engines is cutting edge and, honestly, the technology and deployment of these vehicles is still at least a generation away.  On the other hand, you can bet that as fossil fuels become more and more scarce in the coming century, the concept of fuel-celled vehicles – especially using hydrogen (the most common element in the universe) will become of the utmost importance.  In fact, the current goal is that diesel-powered buses in London will be replaced with hydrogen cell buses in the next two years.
  • Hybrids – Far from being some sort of mutant creature, the hybrid vehicle is already on the road now, but mostly in the guise of a car or SUV. Essentially, a gas powered engine is available to power the vehicle when the power needs are higher and an electric motor takes over when the power band is reduced – say highway driving at the speed limit.  While the hybrid class of vehicles is popular, the struggle to make them viable for medium and heavy-duty truck use, with higher GVWR and literally tons of unsprung weight could be a long one.

The State of Alternate Fuels for Commercial Work Vehicles 2

For generations, we’ve been accustomed to seeing one of two types of engines on the jobsite – gas or diesel.  The next decade may show more radical changes in the engines and motors we use for business and work than we’ve seen since the 1920s, when the steam engine, the diesel engine, and gasoline engines all vied for the tradesman’s dollar.  It’s ironic that nearly one hundred years after those battles were fought, many of the same industries are again having to see how they will get their equipment to the jobsite of the future and what will provide the energy they need to get their business done.