Diesel to Remain the Leading Fuel for Decades to Come

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While alternative fuels and technologies may increase in the future, diesel will remain the primary fuel for the trucking industry for decades. The findings were part of a two-year study on the future of alternative fuels conducted by the National Petroleum Council. The U.S. Secretary of Energy requested the study, which looked at the full breadth of alternative-fuel options alongside traditional diesel and gasoline.

A team made up of over 300 leading academics, engineering experts and executives in the vehicles and fuels industries created the long-term view of transportation fuel use scenarios in the U.S., looking at natural gas, plug-in electric power, hydrogen, biodiesel, and gasoline and ethanol blends.

The Department of Energy estimates that heavy-duty trucks, defined as on-road vehicles in Class 3 through 8, consume over 20 percent of the fuel used in transportation in the United States, and the study said that diesel will remain a leading fuel among all classes.

“Diesel in all the scenarios we ran remains the dominant fuel for heavy-duty trucking. There is no place where we see diesel shares moving below the 50 percent mark even in the very long term in 2020 and 2035,” said Bill Taylor who worked on the study. Taylor made his comments while presenting the study at The NATSO Show in Savannah, Ga.

Taylor said diesel will remain strong due, in part, to its continued improvement in fuel economy. Researchers found that heavy-duty truck fuel economy has the potential to nearly double between now and 2050. “There are opportunities for significant fuel economy improvements in diesel-powered trucks. There is no lightening bolt or a silver bullet, but just a lot of little improvements to trucks over the long term,” he said.

Technologies such as low-friction bearings, single wide-base tires, and transmission and driveline advancements will contribute to increased efficiency. “When we look out to 2050, we have to make the assumption that some of these technologies will be ironed out by then,” Taylor said.

While diesel will remain strong, Taylor expects to see the use of natural gas continue to increase, and its market share in heavy-duty trucking may approach 50 percent by 2050 if the price differential between diesel and natural gas persists over time.

“The use of natural gas compared to diesel or gasoline has significantly lower CO2 emissions, and policy makers care about that,” Taylor said. “We see a future for natural gas. We see an economic home for it and a place where the economics can become so attractive that if you’re driving a lot of miles and burning a lot of fuel, you can benefit from it.”

The study estimated that by 2050, the extra cost of a natural gas heavy truck could decrease. While the current cost ranges from $50,000 to $75,000, the study estimates it could decrease to a range of $28,000 to $42,000.

Even still, a transition to natural gas will be well into the future. “If everyone started buying natural gas trucks tomorrow, it would still be a long time before a lot of them were on the road because trucks last for a long time and there are a lot of older trucks on the road,” Taylor said.

The study also found that gasoline power will be a formidable competitor in the medium-duty sector due to the ever-increasing cost of diesel engines and their required emission control systems. In addition, hydrogen and plug-in electric power technologies are highly efficient and have their advantages, but will remain a small part of the industry. “Battery and fuel-cell technologies still lag the heavy-duty requirements by quite a ways,” Taylor said.

Photo Credit: Ira Wexler/NATSO

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This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazineStop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations.

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Mindy Long's photo

Mindy Long

Before launching a full-time freelance career, Long edited NATSO's Stop Watch magazine. Prior to that Long worked as a staff reporter for Transport Topics, a weekly trade newspaper, covering freight transportation, fuel and environmental issues. In addition to covering the transportation sector, Long has written, reported and edited for a variety of media outlets. She was the Washington correspondent for WCAX-TV (CBS) in Burlington, Vt., a criminal court reporter in Chicago and a freelance copy editor for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine in Washington D.C. Long hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Ill., and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.More
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