How much power does a natural gas engine have? According to Fred Stow, director of sales for Waukesha-Pearce Industries (WPI), “the power to change an industry.”
And maybe more than just one.
Drilling for oil and gas could get noticeably cheaper for companies, as in late August the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified two of GE’s Waukesha natural gas-fueled engine models for mobile, non-road applications.
The Waukesha is billed by GE officials as a “lower cost, lower emission choice for powering drill rigs and oilfield equipment in place of older diesel units.” They claim that powering a drill rig with natural gas instead of diesel fuel “can result in up to 80 percent lower fuel costs for a producer.”
Natural Gas — The Virtuous Circle.
They give the case of Patterson-UTI Drilling, currently working in West Virginia and other gas-producing states, which decided to try the Waukesha gas engine technology. Mike Garvin, senior vice president of operations support for Patterson-UTI Drilling, said that the cost advantage enables them to offer lower prices on their product, because customers “do not have to purchase higher-priced diesel fuel.” Cheaper fuel for them, lower prices for customers.
Fracking makes natural gas cheaper, which makes it possible for engines to run on the cheaper natural gas, which makes extraction of natural gas cheaper. It’s a nice version of a vicious circle, whatever that’s called — a virtuous circle?
In fact, natural gas is so much cheaper now that Forbes recently reported that its iconic F-150 pickup “will be offered with a compressed natural gas engine starting in the 2014 model year, giving contractors and vehicle fleet owners the potential for big savings in their annual operating costs.”
Yes, the CNG version of the F-150 will set you back $10,000 more, but Kevin Koswick, Ford’s director of North American fleet, leasing and re-marketing operations, told Forbes that the company is confident that buyers will see the ROI “in as little as two to three years.”
And just how cheap is cheap? “CNG sells for an average of $2.11 per gallon of gasoline equivalent, and as little as $1 in some parts of the country. The national average for unleaded regular gasoline is $3.66.”
The Economist noted in May that fracking’s role in unlocking natural gas from America’s vast shale deposits is “the biggest breakthrough the energy industry has seen in decades,” releasing “unprecedented quantities of gas from this shale. As a consequence, the spot price of domestically produced natural gas has tumbled from a high of over $12 per million British Thermal Units in 2008 to less than $2 in 2012, before settling at around $4 today.”
The possibilities are just beginning to be explored. Oklahoma City-based Devon Energy, an oil and natural gas exploration and production firm, also recently selected GE’s integrated Power to Lift product combining “power and grid technologies from across GE,” including a Waukesha natural gas engine, “to power electric submersible pump operations in the Mississippian formation near Oklahoma City.”
Stow points to another advantage of natural gas-powered engines: Natural gas is less than half the price of diesel. Furthermore, a natural gas engine “can run on a much greater variation of readily available fuel sources, using everything from dry field gas to pipeline gas, including LNG and propane.”
While it might have been the case at one time that natural gas-powered engines weren’t as good as diesel-powered ones, advances in engineering has given natural gas engines an edge today, said Brian White, president of GE’s Waukesha gas engines. The “rich-burn combustion technology” used in the Waukesha gas engines gives end users “the capability to operate on a wide variety of field gases without derate, achieve ultra-low emissions with a low cost, three-way catalyst, and application flexibility in altitude and temperature,” he said. “Plus, exceptional transient performance with diesel-like loading is a key advantage here.”
If natural gas didn’t come from fracking, it would be far more widely praised among environmentalists than it is. “When purged of impurities, natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel around,” The Economist says, adding that “it produces 30 percent less carbon dioxide per unit of heat than petrol does, and 45 percent less than coal.”
Cost is one of the primary factors driving growth in natural gas engines. Government regulation is another. Industry journal Breaking Energy reported in early September that pending diesel emissions limits are “an opportunity for on- and non-road natural gas-powered engines.”
Power Solutions International’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Cohen told Breaking Energy that the alternatively-fueled engine manufacturer believes regulations “will drive the energy America uses from diesel to propane or natural gas,” since as Breaking Energy put it, “building bulkier emission compliant diesel engines is capital intensive.”
The way Cohen explained it to Breaking Energy, the cost increase associated with Tier 3 emissions compliance “was between 30 percent to 100 percent and Tier 4 compliance will require engines to be 35 percent larger.” Preparing for a surge in business, PSI officials report “staffing up significantly” at their Chicago area manufacturing facility, as the production of engines used in such things as “power fork lifts, aerial lifts, aircraft ground support vehicles, wood chippers” and the like will double to about 80,000 next year.
Manufacturing Powered By Natural Gas in Rhode Island.
It’s possible that natural gas could also spark a boom in more fuel-efficient manufacturing itself. In late August the Providence Journal reported that Toray Plastics (America) Inc., currently the largest single user of electricity in Rhode Island, is slated to use cogeneration technology “in which electricity is created by burning natural gas and efficiency is maximized by capturing and using waste heat.”
The Journal reported that the system “is expected to reduce the factory’s annual consumption of outside electricity by 87,473 megawatt hours,” and that if all goes as currently planned, “as much as 95 percent of the factory’s electricity will be generated on site.”
So it’s rather ironic that the Waukesha engine is being pioneered in West Virginia, which produces the fossil fuel source most likely to be hurt by the natural gas market.