National Alternative Fuel Corridor: Michigan to Montana
The freedom to hit the open road has always been at the center of our love affair with the automobile. But for some drivers and fleet operators, trying to choose a vehicle powered by a cleaner domestic fuel like natural gas or electricity has meant limiting that freedom due to gaps in the nationwide fueling and charging infrastructure. Well, that is rapidly changing as more and more major highways and roads are being designated Alternative Fuel Corridors, knocking down the final barriers for making clean fuels the best alternative no matter where the road takes you!
The National Alternative Fuel Corridor Network includes parts of 220 heavily traveled interstates and highways in 49 states and DC, covering more than 145,000 miles.
One vital link, the Michigan to Montana I-94 Alternative Fuel Corridor, or M2M, is the result of a joint effort between clean cities coalitions and critical government and industry partners, like the Gas Technology Institute, throughout the Midwest. Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, it runs 1500 miles along Interstate 94 from Port Huron, Michigan at the Canadian border, all the way to Billings, Montana.
It passes through the major cities of Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis, but also countless small towns, and miles upon miles of rolling farmland. The M2M corridor is a vital link for long-haul trucking as well as a prime mover for expanding the use of propane, biodiesel, ethanol, natural gas and electric with regional fleet operators.
SAMANTHA BINGHAM: "This project and projects like it across the country, help those fleets to expand their use of alternative fuels, to use it along more routes. And then also it helps encourage fleets that aren’t using alternative fuels currently, they can see that these routes are supported and that it encourages them to adopt alternative fuel vehicles and switch out their petroleum-based vehicles."
Compressed natural gas is an affordable and abundant U.S.-sourced fuel that can help to reduce greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions. Ozinga’s red striped trucks are a common sight around Chicago and northwest Indiana, and since 2013, the company has been converting its fleet of 500 ready-mix trucks to run on CNG. At the same time, it expanded its own business to become a regional natural gas fuel provider, now operating seven public-access CNG stations in the area, which makes it more practical for other fleets who want to switch to CNG.
Propane is another popular alternative fuel option, especially with fleets. Along the alternative fuel corridors, uniform signage nationwide indicates which type of fuel is most plentiful. But in our 3,000-mile trek for this story, we found that word of mouth travels faster still.
TIM RAHN: "And there are vehicles out there. We've got 10 or 15 people that stop every single week. Coming through, going to the cabin, coming home..and they support us, they know we have it, it's easy to use, it’s safe to use, and it’s cheap. The last three months we’ve been 80, 80 to 85 cents a gallon cheaper than regular gasoline. It was a diversity, it’s something that nobody else has in this area, and we wanted to be the first to have it."
Schwan’s frozen foods has a fleet of more than 600 propane-fueled delivery vehicles and has also built out their own fueling infrastructure, but smaller fleets, like Groome Transportation, are also reaping the benefits of the M2M corridor.
SCOTT HAYES: "Before, when we ran down to Minneapolis, we would run out about halfway up, so now with this corridor being built out, it’ll give us more opportunities to fill up with propane and we will have the opportunity to run cleaner, longer."
Also included in the Alternative Fuel Corridor designations is the availability of electric vehicle charging stations, especially fast-charging, convenient to the interstates.
The EV charging infrastructure has been expanding rapidly for the past decade. At the far end of our journey, in Fargo, North Dakota, three new fast-charging sites are coming online, helping to make frontier destinations like these, once considered remote, more accessible and convenient for EV drivers.
CHAD BROUSSEAU: "It’s a win-win, we’re a member-owned electric cooperative, not for profit, so it’s good for the members, good for us, uh, not only is it electric sales for Cass County Electric but an electric vehicle in the right circumstance, can be a money-saver for the electric vehicle owner in reduced operating and maintenance costs."
In the drive to curb emissions and make America less dependent on imported oil for transportation, spurring development of cleaner alternative fuel vehicles and building out a national network of convenient fueling points for natural gas, propane, hydrogen and electric vehicles goes hand in hand.
SAMANTHA BINGHAM: "Also the M2M Corridor really demonstrates that cities and states and utilities and fuel providers and retailers can all work together, across state lines to make this infrastructure, this clean fuel infrastructure, available."
The Michigan to Montana Alternative Fuel Corridor project is fast making these fuels a fine first choice for everyone!
Heavy duty trucks transport about 70% of our goods and materials around the country and account for 10% of all miles driven on US highways. The bad news is, most big rigs travel about 6 miles per gallon of fuel, so the need to improve truck efficiency is more crucial than ever. Well, the US Department of Energy has come up with a way to find those answers.
Kicking off in 2010 and now entering its third iteration, SuperTruck is a Department of Energy-funded research program aimed at helping truck makers achieve ambitious gains in freight efficiency, or ton-miles per gallon, for the next generation of big rigs.
SuperTruck 2, which is now wrapping up, focused on diesel engines, which still, and will, power most trucks for the near future. Several teams were able to incorporate 48-volt mild hybrid systems to enable idle reduction, power the hotel loads, or driver comfort systems, and convert belt-driven accessories, like steering, to electric power, eliminating drag on the engine for more efficient operation. SuperTruck 3 will explore electric and fuel cell power trains over the next few years.
DEREK ROTZ: “As we move forward into research, we’re looking into zero emissions, and the benefits of working with the Department of Energy is not only getting a– a 50/50 cost share to allow us to share the resources on these high risk/high reward technologies, but it also opens us up to the possibility to work with the national lab systems, the university systems, and those folks that have been looking at those cutting edge– edge technologies for years.”
The result has been a super-charged R&D effort that is already paying huge dividends. One SuperTruck 2 team has achieved 16 miles per gallon, 10 more than the current on-road average, and all are on track to surpass the 100% freight efficiency goal, some reaching as much as 170% improvement.
DAREK VILLENEUVE: “We’ve looked at all aspects with an eye towards production. We don’t want to develop things off in a science box that had no means, we really want to look at things that did have a good chance for production.”
Looking at all of these futuristic designs, it’s obvious that lightweighting and aerodynamics play a big part. Technology like rearview cameras and extensive wind tunnel testing has found ways to make the big box less boxy, minimize body gaps, and improve airflow.
KEITH BRANDIS: “When you look at aero, it takes a number of factors that we have to stretch, if you will, and that was the whole purpose, was to see how far we could go with extreme aero, and you’ll see all the skirting along the side of the vehicle, but also to lower the vehicle and use low profile tires, to eliminate the amount of air that builds up around the front air dam.”
Both Peterbilt and Kenworth’s extreme aero designs build around a center seating position to allow a narrow nose. While Navistar’s sleek rig includes a curved trailer roof to maximize clean airflow across the full length. With aerodynamic gains now almost exceeding the realm of what’s possible, looking forward the R&D focus will shift back to the power train, and the target of zero emissions.
DEREK ROTZ: “So… So, decarbonizing commercial vehicles is no easy task. Uh, we’ve been at diesel for over a century now, we’ve kind of perfected it. Going into these zero emissions technologies is a whole new field, so–so it’s learning about new technologies, new technical fields such as electro-chemistry, um, things like that are new to this industry, and those are some of the barriers we need to be able to overcome.”
Here is where collaboration and innovation come into play. All of these manufacturers are up for the challenge and optimistic that zero-emission trucks will be viable not too far down the road.
MAARTEN MEIJER: “Solutions that we see as opportunities are the fuel cell electric vehicles, the hydrogen combustion engine vehicles, and the hybrid powertrains using the more traditional diesel engine concept, but switching to an e-fuel approach.”
So, what’s the bottom line of all this effort? Supertruck-developed technologies can save nearly 6 billion barrels of oil by 2050. To the average truck owner, that could ring up $35,000 a year in fuel savings! And that adds up to environmental and financial savings that benefit all of us in the long haul!