Companies leading US move away from oil-based vehicle fuels

WASHINGTON — Commercial vehicle fleets will lead the United States’ transition away from oil-based fuels to power cars and trucks, leading business executives predicted Wednesday.

The transformation has already started, with Waste Management adopting garbage trucks powered by compressed natural gas and FedEx partnering in research on electric and hybrid alternatives.

FedEx CEO Fred Smith said he believes electric vehicles will increasingly be used for short-haul, light-duty commercial vehicles, particularly those using next-generation batteries that can store more power. In the meantime, he predicted that natural gas will be the fuel of choice for heavy-duty trucks.

In particular, Smith said, cities are excited about the clean profile of electric vehicles.

“Light-duty electric vehicles will take off,” he said, “These city governments love them for their zero emissions.”

Smith and other business leaders were speaking at an energy summit organized by Securing America’s Future Energy, a group focused on curbing U.S. oil dependence.

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GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt noted that his company expects to have 15,000 salespeople driving electric vehicles.

What is happening at the corporate level may trickle down to average Joe motorists. Repowering and refueling infrastructure that builds up to support corporate fleets later can be tapped by other consumers.

Beyond infrastructure development, corporate America’s turn to alternative vehicles can propel new technology.

Houston-based Waste Management is harnessing gas from its landfills to power more of its fleet, said CEO David Steiner.

“We have a…heavy-duty fleet we’re going to make dependent on natural gas,” Steiner said, noting that while the fuel is “cleaner,” it brings plenty of other benefits too.

“When you run a (compressed natural gas) truck, you have fewer moving parts, so maintenance actually comes down,” Steiner said.

The trucks also run quieter, meaning the rumble of garbage trucks passing through residential neighborhoods at dawn could be a thing of the past. Steiner joked that he’s only heard one consumer complaint about the company’s shift to CNG trucks, and it was from a customer who depended on the sound of those vehicles as a reminder to get his trash cans out to the curb.

Steiner said another benefit has been capturing previously lost time spent refueling. Vehicles can be powered overnight with a “slow fuel” like natural gas, replacing potentially 20 minutes of lost worker time refueling with traditional diesel each morning.

Daniel Akerson, chairman of General Motors Co., used the energy forum to announce the company will begin selling a duel-fuel sedan next year that can “seamlessly” switch from gasoline and compressed natural gas. The two-fuel-tank 2015 Chevrolet Impala would be able to drive up to 500 miles.

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The existing Chevrolet Volt already effectively has two fuels, in the form of electric propulsion and a backup combustion engine that kicks in whenever power drops below a certain level.

Akerson said the approach ensures the Volt navigates around a major concern for motorists: whether they have the juice to get from one place to another. “Range anxiety . . . is the biggest setback to the electric vehicle,” he said.

The executives speaking in the nation’s capital on Wednesday emphasized the promise of natural gas — both on the roadways and in factories producing chemicals and consumer goods.

We’re in a natural gas and renewables age, observed GE’s Immelt.

Immelt said he was confident “we have enough natural gas” in the United States that we can export the fossil fuel to other countries and support a resurgence in domestic manufacturing.

However a major concern remains ensuring the shale gas revolution isn’t strangled by regulation, Immelt said. Most of the oversight is happening at the state level.

China and other countries are eager to tap their own shale gas resources, including some in areas located far from water supplies essential to hydraulic fracturing.

Immelt stressed the amount of natural gas lurking in dense shale formations across the globe.

“There’s a ton of gas being found,” he said. “Not just in the U.S. . . . There’s a lot in a lot of places in the world.”

But billionaire Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens said other countries will struggle to catch up. China and Russia are 13 years behind the U.S. in tapping their shale gas resources, he said, even though they have the right geology.


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