Innovative Project Has Environmental and Economic Benefits
Christy Skelton, an engineer working out of Keyera’s Drayton Valley field office in West Central Alberta, is heading up a pilot project that will see a test fleet of field vehicles converted to dual-fuel natural gas/gasoline operation later this year. Most of the time, the converted vehicles will run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), with the option to switch to gasoline when needed.
The benefits include a smaller environmental footprint – reduced processing and no trucking of product, and a cleaner-burning fuel. CNG vehicles produce 25% less carbon dioxide and 80% less carbon monoxide, with an astonishing 90% reduction in sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxides and particulate matter compared to gasoline powered vehicles. The average Keyera CNG vehicle will save approximately five tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. From an economic standpoint, CNG represents savings of up to 50% in fuel costs over gasoline or diesel. Converting to natural gas is also eligible for GHG credits.
Christy, where did the idea for this project come from?
“It’s been in the works since 2012. At my first field engineering meeting shortly after I started at Keyera, I was chatting with the Vice President of Engineering, Graham Balzun, about the natural gas industry and why we as an industry aren't putting more energy into encouraging the use of natural gas. He suggested I look into natural gas vehicles. I've pretty much been running with it since we had the initial discussion.”
What process did you have to go through to get a green light for the pilot project?
“I did a lot of research about the vehicles, the costs and benefits, and what we would need to do in order to convert them. After getting local area management support, I then contacted our Business Development group in Calgary to see if there was a business case for the project. The benefits are clear: lower greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality and reduced fuel pricing. The main challenges are reduced driving range and longer filling times. But all considered, we felt that a pilot program was warranted. The vehicles we have at some plants drive significant miles and typically the same route every day. The idea was then presented to the executive team for approval in May 2013.”
What’s involved in converting a vehicle to run on natural gas?
“The fuel storage tank and injection system are the main changes in the vehicle. The vehicle’s computer also has to have sensors installed as well, so the vehicle knows when to switch back to gasoline if required. There are after-market conversion kits available as well as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) models. The cost varies, depending on whether it is an after-market or an OEM conversion. We’re going mainly with OEM, so our average cost will be around $10,000, but the price is coming down as more U.S. companies are turning to natural gas to fuel their vehicles.”
What is your timeline to be up and running?
“We have four of the eight vehicles converted so far, although they are still running on gasoline. We are working with our maintenance departments to install two fill stations – one at our Brazeau River gas plant and one at our West Pembina gas plant. Hopefully we will be fully up and running by September 1.”
What’s involved in building filling stations?
“Well, there are two main types of CNG refuelling systems – fast fill and slow fill. Fast fill stations have large compressors as well as high pressure fuel storage tanks to support rapid vehicle refueling and dispense CNG at rates comparable to liquid fuels. Slow fill stations do not have storage tanks and they have smaller compressors. Vehicles return to base at night and are plugged in at filling posts for overnight refuelling. Vehicles can also refuel during the day while the drivers are at the office. If there are four vehicles filling at the same time, it takes 10 hours to fill from completely empty to full.
We decided that a slow fill station would be most appropriate for a pilot project, mainly because the difference in size of compressors means a significant difference in price and footprint. A fast fill station will be the next stage if the pilot is successful. Because we have about 100 vehicles in our Drayton Valley fleet, I would like to see a fast fill station in a centralized location.
The slow fill stations come as a package so they need a pad, a natural gas tie-in and an electrical tie-in. After that, there will be training on maintenance and filling. Since the people using and working on the station are already in the oilfield, the equipment will not be new or unusual. The stations will then be put on a regular maintenance schedule. Fortunately we were able to locate the stations within popular driving routes for our staff, which will make it easier for the drivers to remember to plug in.”
So where does the natural gas come from?
“We will be sourcing the natural gas directly from the fuel gas lines at the Brazeau River and West Pembina gas plants. Our marketing department has made arrangements with our producer customers to buy their natural gas as it passes through our gas plants.”
What are you hoping to accomplish with the pilot?
“This has been a fantastic opportunity for Keyera to adopt a program that will lessen our environmental impact."
We want to make sure the vehicles are reliable and find out the driving range under actual field conditions. With the fuel tanks we are installing, the vehicles should be able to drive around 400 kilometres under highway conditions before needing to refuel. We would also like to know how the units stand up under our field conditions, and how they perform in cold weather. Our operations run 24/7, 365 days a year. We drive over rough roads and in every kind of weather.
Converting vehicles to CNG isn't really a "one size fits all" project so our other field offices will be reviewing our results to determine if a similar project will benefit them. That will depend, as well, on the number of trucks in their fleet and the driving patterns and distances.
We’re also eager to share our experience with others in the industry and with the local municipalities that have expressed an interest in results of our pilot project. Keyera is one of the organizers of the Western Canada Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition. About 30 companies participate to varying degrees. We meet twice a year to discuss our ongoing and upcoming projects, any common challenges and potential solutions. Some companies don't have any plans to convert vehicles but want to be kept up to date on any new information.”