Fuels Forward Blog: The Built-In Altfuel Advantage

How c-stores can win alternative fuels infrastructure race--if industry moves quickly

Samantha Oller, Senior Editor/Fuels, CSP

Alternative Fuels Forward Blog (CSP Daily News / Convenience Stores / Gas Stations)

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Ill. -- I recently attended the Natural Gas Vehicles USA conference in Houston, which saw around 300 attendees from fleets, utilities and equipment providers as well as some convenience store chains. It is managed by FC Gas Intelligence, a London-based market research firm. A few re-occurring themes: Sustainability, which many of fleets highlighted as a driving reason why they were converting trucks to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG).

The embrace of sustainability and clean fuels maybe shouldn't be a surprise in this forum--natural gas does burn cleaner than gasoline and diesel (and it helps to believe in something other than cost savings to champion it as a transportation fuel). But I'll admit, with the involvement of major oil in developing natural gas and the concerns around fracking, it was an interesting vibe.

Another popular topic: Coming to terms with the different "experience" of driving a natural-gas powered truck. There's a small drop in mileage compared to diesel, although some of it can be mitigated by re-training drivers. These alternative vehicles are a lot quieter than their diesel counterparts, and so drivers may just be having issues figuring out when to shift. In fact they're so quiet that the representative of one fleet said a driver actually regained some of his hearing lost after years of driving a throaty diesel. Drivers also like not smelling like diesel after a shift.

Really, it's easy to forget how much driving is an experience--from fueling through the journey and reaching your destination. And here's where it's clear (to me) that c-stores have the edge.

Many different models are evolving as the natural-gas fueling infrastructure develops, with utilities, municipalities and fleets opening up their own public fueling locations and home refueling systems under development. At the conference, one company, Ultimate CNG, highlighted a mobile fast-fill CNG fueling service--essentially a truck outfitted with a compressor and storage tanks that drives to your site to fuel up your fleet overnight, or to serve as backup to a retailer or fleet whose own equipment is down or needs a boost.

But the c-store retailers who presented at the conference--Love's Travel Stops, Kwik Trip, Hutchinson Oil and OnCue Express--sealed the deal. Why? They provide the best experience. While the utilities, municipalities and fleets have improved the look of their public fueling sites and learned how to make them more user-friendly, the fact is most are located off of the main roads and typically without an attendant on duty.

Home refueling has headwinds. Who can beat the convenience here? But while many homes have a natural gas line, installing a home refueling appliance is expensive, and according to experts would need to be done by a licensed, certified plumber.

Convenience stores and travel stops with CNG have it all: the infrastructure, the easy in and out, the lighted canopy, the store to visit while fueling, the attendants on duty to help. They're built to fuel.

A representative of one utility at the conference with its own public fueling site said its attitude is "we don't want to be a gas station," believing that the site needs to stay within certain modest parameters. Seems to me that being a (natural) gas station is the best thing to be.

Part of CSP's 2014 Convenience Top 101 retailers