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There may not ever be a Ford (NYSE: F ) F-250 that runs on natural gas sitting in your driveway, but as the company's fleet sales continue to rise, you could very well find yourself behind the wheel of such a truck while you're on the job. If that's the case, chances are it will have a bi-fuel engine in it courtesy of Westport Innovations (NASDAQ: WPRT ) .
This ol' engine makes it on time
Westport has officially rolled out its trademarked "WiNG Power System" in Ford F-Series 250, 350, 450, and 550 trucks. The new bi-fuel engines (gasoline kicks in when the CNG runs out) have a range of 650 to 775 miles and don't force you to give up any of the features you might be used to on a standard gas-powered truck: 6.2L V8 engine; 4x2 or 4x4 power train options; multiple cargo box lengths; multiple cab size options.
At about $9,500, the upfit for the new engine is pricey, but as we'll see later, it can be a very worthwhile investment for businesses to make.
Ford is pushing the envelope when it comes to natural gas fleet vehicles, and it's not stopping at Super Duty pickups. In fact, it offers 15 different 2013 vehicles that can run on either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) with factory-installed engine upfits.
Ford has watched interest in its natural gas-powered trucks soar since the entire industry bottomed out in 2009. Since then, sales of CNG- or LPG-prepped vehicles have jumped 350%. The company sold more than 11,500 last year, and it expects that number to grow to more than 13,000 this year.
Sure, 13,000 vehicles is just a drop in the bucket, considering that Ford sold more than 70,000 F-series trucks in May alone, but it is an important drop nevertheless.
Ford is far and away the best game in town when it comes to natural gas commercial vehicles, largely because it has more options than the competition. You want a nat-gas taxi cab? Ford's got it. Same with nat-gas dump trucks, cargo vans, and many, many Super Duty pickups.
The customers for these trucks and vans range from small businesses to big-time corporations. For example, AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Verizon both have large fleets of Ford E-series cargo vans. In fact, AT&T expects to bring its total of CNG-powered vans up to 8,000 by the end of this year. The company was operating about 5,200 as of the end of the first quarter.
Though Ford dominates the commercial nat-gas vehicle market, General Motors isn't shying away, and the company managed to snag some cash from AT&T when it struck a deal last year to deliver 1,200 Chevrolet Express cargo vans to the telecommunications giant. It marked GM's largest order ever for CNG vehicles.
Expect to a lot more of these big corporate deals to go down over the next few years. Purchasing fleet vehicles that run on natural gas offers businesses three major incentives. First, natural gas is cheaper than gasoline right now and is expected to remain so for the next few years. Current estimates break out the cost of a diesel gallon equivalent of fuel as so:
Price Per Gallon
Compressed natural gas is significantly cheaper than the fuels were used to filling up with every day.
The second reason businesses employ natural gas vehicles is that they have lower emissions, which in turn results in a smaller carbon footprint for these organizations. On average, CNG emissions are 28% lower than gasoline or diesel, and if the CNG comes from landfill gas, emissions are 88% lower. Companies such as Waste Management (NYSE: WM ) , which powers its trucks with gas from its landfills, are among the greenest operations. In fact, 85% of Waste Management's new truck purchases run on natural gas. Should the day come when we see a price on carbon (production or consumption), that, too, will probably tilt the economics in favor of these cleaner, greener natural gas vehicles.
And finally, the third advantage of using natural gas as a fuel is that there is less wear and tear on the engine, compared with its diesel cousin, which also saves companies money in the long run.
What, no downside?
All of these advantages can benefit individual consumers as well, but removing the advantage of scale does bring about one big disadvantage: refueling.
Whereas corporations can pay to install centralized fueling centers for their natural gas fleets, that sort of facility is not only cost prohibitive for the individual, but existing corporate facilities are a;sp typically off limits to the public. There are about 1,000 natural gas fueling stations nationwide, but only 585 are available to the public. Compare that with more than 120,000 traditional gas stations and you see how far we have to go.
Clean Energy Fuels (NASDAQ: CLNE ) is doing its part to build out this network, adding 70 fueling stations last year, and controlling more than 400 total, but that is far short of what we need to bring about significant change in fuel consumption patterns for everyday people. For now, the big change will come at the corporate level.
Ford estimates that upfitting one of these trucks to run on natural gas can cost an additional $7,800 to $12,500, depending on the model, fuel tanks, fuel injectors, and fuel lines. That's a significant increase in purchase price, but one that many companies have made up in fuel cost savings alone over the course of only two or three years. This doesn't take into account lower maintenance costs or any local tax breaks a business may get for low-emission vehicles, factors that could decrease the amount of time it takes to see a return.
If you haven't driven a natural-gas Ford lately, that day may come sooner than you think.
As the most advanced designer of engines powered by natural gas, Westport Innovations is a small company with a big goal: To lead the world in transitioning away from traditional oil-based fossil fuels in favor of abundant, cheap, and clean natural gas. The company has a price tag large enough to match its ambition, and will need to grow revenue quickly in order to justify sky-high expectations. To help you determine whether Westport Innovations is right for your portfolio, The Motley Fool has just released a brand-new premium report breaking down the company's opportunities, competitive advantages, and risks. To get started, simply click here now for instant access.