Somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania sits what is considered “America’s oldest drive-thru gas station,” which has been in operation since 1909. When building the station, one can only imagine that the owner heard a number of the same questions and concerns that alternative-fuel infrastructure providers now hear when setting up natural gas, propane-autogas, hydrogen, and electric stations around the U.S. With more than a century under its belt, some might say that gasoline infrastructure has already gone through many of the hurdles now faced by its not-so-distant alt-fuel cousins.

Driving Policy & Preparation

As with the early phases of gasoline infrastructure creation in the U.S., many alt-fuel industries are looking ahead at what is coming down the road rather than what is parked at the pump. For the American Gas Association (AGA), that means ensuring policies are aligned with the market forces to help accelerate the trends.

“In the 1990s, we were trying to do something in a completely policy-driven way and the market realities weren’t there,” said Kathryn Clay, vice president of policy strategy at the AGA. “The shale gas revolution has ushered in an era of low and stable natural gas prices, which is the new market reality that’s defining what’s happening in the country.”

The challenge with any alternative fuel, according to Clay, is that it has to compete with very entrenched and easily accessible fuel sources in the form of gasoline and diesel. The task of building a national infrastructure can be a daunting undertaking, which is why the AGA believes it is best to bring all potential investors “to the table.”

“It’s possible for natural gas utilities, where appropriate, to be part of the solution because our business models enable us to take longer-term viewpoints on our investment than a traditional non-regulated entity,” Clay explained.

Since the rules concerning the types of entities that can own and operate compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG) refueling stations differ between states, natural gas utilities can sometimes be removed from the equation, which can create roadblocks when developing some form of national CNG/LNG fueling infrastructure.

“A national infrastructure is going to bubble up from a lot of local investment. There is not going to be a big, grand plan that is composed by the federal government, nor should there be,” Clay said. “But, what we can create, through regulatory policy, is the right environment to make it easy for investors to build those stations.”

These stations, which, as of press time, total approximately 709 CNG and 54 LNG  in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Alternative Fueling Station Locator, will see their numbers increase according to industry insiders, including Bill Zobel, vice president of market development and strategy for Trillium CNG, a provider of CNG fueling services. Citing figures from Navigant, Zobel sees CNG stations growing at a pace of about 150 to 400 stations per year up to 2020, with public access stations outpacing private stations by about 2:1.

“Most new CNG infrastructure developers are concentrating on high-capacity stations to serve the heavy-duty, over-the- road truck market,” Zobel explained, adding that an increase in Class 6-8 natural gas truck sales is predicted to be around 10 percent of the market by 2020. “Today’s share is about 3 percent, so, if the market grows about 1-1.5 percent per year between now and 2020, we’ll be there.”

Technology could also assist in the implementation of natural gas infrastructure. Lighter and larger on-board CNG tank packages are becoming available, with a considerable amount of innovation being made in this area over the last two years, according to Zobel.

“Just take a look at some of the early storage pack designs and compare. Each revision has resulted in better overall performance and improved lifecycle costs,” Zobel said.

There are also advances being made in terms of home refueling, an option that Clay called “promising.”

“There is very interesting work is supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the U.S. DOE, which is dedicated to trying to develop a reliable, but low-cost, home refueling appliance for natural gas vehicles,” Clay said. “The vision is that in just the same way plug-in hybrid owner scan pull into their garages and plug in their cars, natural gas vehicle owners would be able to pull into their garages and hook up the natural gas vehicle to this appliance, and refuel off the same line that is providing gas to the stove or water heater.”[PAGEBREAK]

Managing the Best Option

Most professionals, no matter which alternative fuel they represent, admit there isn’t a single solution that will work for every fleet. It is more a matter of looking at the different options and deciding which will fit a particular operation.

“There is no one alternative fuel that fits perfectly for all fleets,” said Tucker Perkins, chief business development officer for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC). “Similar to CNG, propane autogas delivers long-term operating cost efficiencies and emissions reductions.”

When it comes to infrastructure, propane autogas advocates have touted the low cost of refueling installation and maintenance, which can make it appealing to fleets both big and small. According to Darren Engle, director of government relations for Blue Star Gas, there is another benefit that must be highlighted when it comes to propane autogas: fiscal independence.

“With 98 percent of the propane autogas coming from the U.S., it reduces our dependence on foreign oil drastically,” Engle said, adding that the future will bring more collaboration between propane autogas marketers to help create fueling networks that span the country, allowing you to drive a propane-autogas-fueled vehicle from California to Washington, D.C. “Right now we have about 3,000 sites available in the U.S. where you can refuel. The challenge is that there’s no continuity in regards to pricing. They can be all over the board. Sometimes, the published price is what it would cost to fill a barbecue cylinder, not what it is to fill a vehicle.” 

Propane autogas also has some changes looming in the very near future in terms of technology, according to Perkins.

Currently, when fueling a propane vehicle, drivers must wear gloves and protective eye wear. This is because, when the tank is filled and the nozzle is removed, a small amount of the fuel escapes. Worldwide, there are essentially seven different nozzle technologies that are being used. When UPS announced plans to purchase 1,000 propane autogas package delivery trucks and initially install 50 fueling stations at UPS locations, PERC saw this as an opportune time to deploy a new nozzle technology, which is modeled after a design currently used throughout Europe. 

“The new nozzle only requires one hand to operate, making it very similar to a gasoline-style pump,” Perkins said. “The connection automatically mates and secures, and you’re able to flow the gas. Emissions are significantly reduced, with less than 1 cubic centimeter escaping during operation. In many cases, that’s less than half of the best technology out there now.”

The UPS deployment will also allow PERC and its partners to access data on driver fueling behaviors and see what their fueling experience is like.

“It was the perfect demonstration lab for us to test this new technology,” Perkins added. “We’ll get the nozzle into at least 30 of the UPS sites, we’ll keep good records, and then begin to build a body of evidence that allows us to mandate these into the code and standards."

The emissions are so low, according to Perkins, that there is no need for personal protective equipment or training. From a safety perspective, these nozzles give users more flexibility. PERC is working in partnership with a number of other companies to voluntarily use this equipment across the board at their own locations.[PAGEBREAK]

Getting Help from Uncle Sam

For many fleet managers, the implementation of a fuel cell vehicle program is far from a reality. With the current number of hydrogen fueling stations hovering around 50 — approximately 10 of which are public — there is a serious lack of infrastructure, an obstacle the U.S. DOE is looking to overcome. As part of the DOE’s Energy’s Fuel Cell Technologies Office (FCTO) plans, researchers are focusing on hydrogen technology development to bring down the cost of the production, delivery, and storage of hydrogen. For example, the FCTO recently issued three funding opportunity announcements focusing on advanced hydrogen storage systems and innovative hydrogen storage materials research and development efforts to address critical challenges and barriers for hydrogen production technology development. 

“Research and development has already reduced the cost of electrolysis by 80 percent in the last decade and reduced the projected cost of hydrogen from natural gas to roughly $4 per kilogram gasoline gallon equivalent (GGE) if produced at high volumes,” said Sunita Satyapal, director of the FCTO within the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

According to Satyapal, funding and support from the DOE has resulted in significant progress in the past few years, reducing automotive fuel cell costs by more than 50 percent since 2006. Also, fuel cell durability has doubled — increasing from 950 hours in 2006 to 2,500 hours in 2011. Funding has also led to more than 450 patents, 40 commercial technologies, and 65 emerging technologies anticipated to come to market in the next three to five years in the area of hydrogen and fuel cells.  

One such funding opportunity, which was announced by the California Energy Commission on May 1, 2014, will award $46.6 million to eight different applicants to accelerate the development of publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations. The new awards will add 28 new stations in to the nine existing ones in California and the 17 that are currently under development.

“These 54 hydrogen refueling stations represent significant progress toward meeting California’s goal of establishing a 100-station network to support the full commercialization of FCEVs in California,” Satyapal said.

One of the applicants, FirstElement Fuel, was awarded $27.6 million, which it will use toward building its first 19 stations, which will be operational by the fall of 2015, according to FirstElement President Shane Stephens-Romero.

“We see ourselves as a catalyst to get us past the initial stages and the tipping point, so that, in five to 10 years from now, there are several companies like ours,” Stephens-Romero said. “You need help from several sectors to get past that initial hump.”

In FirstElement’s case, more help came from engaging Toyota as a partner, which added $7 million to the fueling station project. Recently, Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota’s North American region, expressed a desire to move away from developing longer-range battery-electric vehicles and focusing on emerging fuel cell technologies. According to a study performed by Toyota, to meet the need of 10,000 California fuel cell customers, an infrastructure of 68 refueling stations will be necessary.

“We want to remove the chicken and egg question from the debate,” Stephens-Romero said.[PAGEBREAK]

Evaluating a New Alternative

For many, the initials DME will not ring a bell. Dimethyl ether or DME is a clean-burning gas that can be derived from biomass, waste, and agricultural products, and natural gas. Currently, DME is being produced by Oberon Fuels, a company founded in 2010 after developing a process to convert biogas and natural gas into DME, with only one processing plant currently in operation.

“The main benefit of DME is that it is a true diesel replacement in the sense that it is a high-quality compression ignition fuel,” said Elliot Hicks, Oberon’s chief operating officer. “We’re working hard to get DME included in the alternative-fuels conversation.”

While there is no current infrastructure in place in the U.S., Volvo Trucks, which is partnering with Oberon Fuels to test the new fuel, sees a future for DME.

“I would parallel it to the propane autogas industry because it is handled like propane autogas. The lone exception is the need to replace rubber gaskets on storage and dispensing equipment with Teflon gaskets,” said Frank Bio, Volvo Trucks' director of sales development, specialty vehicles, and alternative fuels. “As we’ve seen in recent years with CNG and LNG, infrastructure will be driven by market demand.”

Electrifying the Country

The Volvo Group is also trying to find ways to evolve the way drivers recharge their electric vehicles. The automaker recently announced it will study the potential for building electric roads that would charge vehicles wirelessly. While the study will focus on using the technology for city buses while they are in operation, it could be applied to any electric vehicle with properly installed inductive charging technology. The project has received the support the Swedish Transport Administration, which is collaborating with Volvo to perform the study, something the company called “absolutely crucial.”

“While manufacturers can develop the vehicles, the decision to make the necessary adaptions to the infrastructure lies in the hands of governments and authorities,” said Karin Wik, head of the Volvo Group’s media relations.

As with other alt-fuel movements, the road has been bumpy for the electric vehicle. While, as of press time there are approximately 20,000 publically available charging outlets according to the DOE, there are still large gaps that exist within the electric infrastructure. The DOE, in an effort to close some of these gaps, has provided funding through Clean Cities Community Electric Vehicle Readiness Project to spread the word and lay down more groundwork for charging stations (Editor’s note: For more on the Community Electric Vehicle Readiness Project, see article on page 18).

“Right now, if you look at the data, between 75 and 80 percent of all the charging is done at home, and the next 5 to 10 percent is done at the work place,” said Linda Bluestein, the national Clean Cities co-director. “As a department, we continue to have a really strong interest in communities becoming ready for plug-in electric vehicles, and if they are ready, we want them to progress because there is a lot communities have to do.”