Universities say natural gas trucking fleets could benefit economy

A report recently released by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California – Davis and Rice University says switching from diesel fuel to natural gas for heavy-duty trucks could hold advantages for the U.S. economy.

The report examines the economic and environmental viability of such a shift, and whether it could enable a transition to lower carbon transport fuels.

“On a resilience basis, an energy security basis, and on an economic basis, there can be advantages to switching to natural gas in key locations,” said lead author Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director for Energy and Sustainability at UC Davis and an affiliate at ITS-Davis. “But to have an environmental advantage for reducing greenhouse gas emissions would take significant policy intervention.”

The report identifies California, the Great Lakes and mid-Atlantic areas as places that are well positioned to launch natural gas networks. The report’s authors say the proximity to high-volume travel corridors is the key factor.

According to the report, such a network could accomplish the following:

  • Enable a faster transition to renewable natural gas, biogas and waste-to-energy pathways.
  • Improve energy security and weather-event resiliency by diversifying the geographic fuel supply.
  • Potentially lower the cost of national freight supply chains, which could enhance global U.S. competitiveness by lowering domestic fuel costs for long-distance trucking in the United States.

The report points out that stricter efficiency standards for natural gas heavy-duty trucks and stronger regulations of methane leakage are necessary for such a movement to be successful.

“It takes more natural gas than diesel fuel to go the same distance,” Myers Jaffe said. “So unless you’re using the best technology for the natural gas truck, you lose some of the benefit of it being a cleaner fuel.”

The report, “Exploring the Role of Natural Gas in U.S. Trucking,” is from ITS-Davis’ NextSTEPS program. Research and modeling activities that contributed to the report were supported in part by funding from the California Energy Commission and GE Ecomagination.