Its a natural gas

June 29, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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UBCR, which has a fleet of 16 semi-tractors hauling more than 2 billion empty bottles and cans from the major population areas of the Lower Peninsula each year, won’t have so far to go anymore to refuel its trucks in West Michigan.

UBCR’s refueling can be challenging, because it doesn’t use diesel fuel; over the past winter, it converted to compressed natural gas. In June, DTE Energy opened another natural gas refueling station at the Louis Padnos recycling facility on 44th Street in Wyoming.

DTE Energy already provides compressed natural gas refueling at the Pacific Pride station on Bartlett Street near downtown Grand Rapids and at the Wesco station on East Broadway in Muskegon. There are 10 other CNG refueling stations in southeast Michigan, from Port Huron to Ann Arbor to Adrian.

Companies like UBCR that have switched to CNG to power their fleets are enjoying the benefit of good timing. Earlier this year, the price of natural gas at the wellhead was about $2.30 per thousand cubic feet, compared to $12 a few years ago. Natural gas is abundant in Michigan, too.

World petroleum prices are still bouncing around near the high end, of course.

Jeff Schram, general manager of Wixom-based UBCR LLC, said in late June that diesel fuel was roughly $3.89 a gallon, while an equivalent amount of CNG was at $2.65.

Last year, UBCR contracted to lease 16 new Freightliner M2 tractors equipped with the Cummins Westport 8.9-litre ISL G heavy-duty natural gas engine. The fleet also includes 152 53-foot trailers, used for picking up returnable beverage bottles and cans and hauling them to recycling plants.

According to Schram, UBCR went into business in 1996 to help the beverage distributors in Michigan deal with the returnable container law. He said the Michigan Soft Drink Association, the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers and major retail companies wanted to improve the process for disposing of returned bottles and cans, so they joined forces and went to two companies: Schupan & Sons recycling in Kalamazoo and Tomra North America. Tomra, a Norwegian firm, makes the “reverse vending machines” that consumers feed empty beer and soft drink containers into to get their deposit back.

Schupan and Tomra formed a joint venture to create UBCR, a third-party agent that hauls away the returned bottles and cans collected at the major retail stores across the southern half of the Lower Peninsula. UBCR has about 60 employees across the state and has had a facility in Wyoming since 2004.

With the UBCR fleet putting in about 2.2 million miles a year and diesel fuel prices so prone to increases, the company started looking at alternative fuel sources about two years ago, according to Schram. He added UBCR also had a notion to “do something environmentally friendly.”

So UBCR looked at biofuels and hydrogen but settled on CNG “because the way natural gas operates in an engine is so similar to diesel, it made the transition a lot easier. The equipment and technology was already in the marketplace.”

Then UBCR partnered with DTE Energy “to build our fuel stations,” said Schram, starting with one at UBCR’s home base in Wixom.

Schram said a few other companies use some compressed natural gas vehicles in Michigan, including DTE Energy and AT&T, but “UBCR is the first full fleet to convert to natural gas in the state of Michigan.”

Ryder, the semi-truck rental company, had already been operating compressed natural gas vehicles in Texas and California, which helped it get the new contract with UBCR.

According to Schram, about 85 percent of the natural gas used in the United States is sourced within the U.S.; the remainder comes from Canada.

He said compressed natural gas also burns cleaner than diesel, with fewer carbon emissions.

“It’s definitely a big push away from our dependence on foreign oil,” said Schram.

The DTE Energy website states that because natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline, natural gas vehicles can go longer between oil changes and engine tune-ups.

“We expect similar performance and life out of these engines,” compared to diesel, said Schram of their new CNG semi-tractors.

Schram said there is somewhat of a “misconception” on the part of many people who hear about a compressed natural gas vehicle and fear it would explode in a collision.

The tanks that contain the CNG are made of thick steel — so much so, according to Schram, that they have been tested by dropping them from aircraft and they did not break. Bullets fired at the tanks do not rupture them, either, he said.

“The casing is so thick, it’s near impossible to rupture them,” he said, but he did concede that the tanks are heavy, which may make them more practical for use on a semi-tractor than a smaller vehicle.

The tanks hold natural gas compressed from 3,000 to 3,600 pounds of pressure. If the pressure becomes too extreme, he said, the tanks are designed to crack, which allows the gas to vent into the atmosphere. The dissipation is so rapid that “the risk of ignition from that is minimal,” he added.

DTE Energy started replacing its service vans with CNG engines in 2010, and said there are thousands of other CNG fleets across the country.

Existing gasoline-powered vehicles can be converted to run on natural gas, according to DTE Energy, and an engine can be converted to run on either natural gas or gasoline. The energy company also says that vehicles that only use CNG deliver the best performance because their engines are designed to take advantage of the fuel’s high octane. Natural gas has an octane rating of 130, compared with gasoline that typically ranges between 87 and 93, states the DTE website.

DTE Energy says CNG also costs less than ethanol, methanol and propane.

Other advantages of CNG fuel, according to DTE Energy, are:

— Natural gas does not react to metals the same way gasoline does, so pipes and mufflers on natural gas vehicles last longer. They also experience less knocking, no vapor locking, and start up and drive more smoothly.

— Impact on the environment is reduced. On average, the carbon footprint for a natural gas vehicle will be 25 to 28 percent less than its gasoline- or diesel-powered equivalent. According to the EPA, CNG engines reduce carbon-monoxide emissions 90 to 97 percent, carbon-dioxide emissions 25 percent, and nitrogen-oxide emissions 35 to 60 percent.

“There is a lot of interest out there in the market for it,” said Schram, “and there’s a lot of talk out there right now, especially on the west side of the state. I think there is a lot more interest in the Grand Rapids area for natural gas right now.”

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