Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers

Mar 31, 2014 Transportation & Infrastructure

There is a huge amount of freight that moves up and down the rivers in the region. Now, there is a movement to transition the boats that move that freight from petroleum-based fuel to liquid natural gas (LNG).

The Port of Pittsburgh Commission and Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, a U.S. DOE funded regional non-profit that supports conversion of vehicles to alternative fuels, have come together to launch an initiative — Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers — to build a natural gas marine corridor that extends from the Morgantown area in West Virginia through Pennsylvania, and down the Ohio River.

According to Jan Lauer, president of Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities, the conversion of towboats to LNG is a "green over green initiative."

"Not only is there an opportunity for substantial environmental improvement for both air and water quality since LNG burns tremendously cleaner than diesel," explains Lauer, "but there is also an opportunity for significant cost savings for the towboat owner. If you are a major hauler and you are burning millions of gallons of fuel and you cut your costs in half, you add millions of dollars to the bottom line."

Funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Benedum Foundation and other industry companies, Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers has launched a feasibility study due out this fall.

"The study is an unbiased technological and economic assessment of the opportunity," says Lauer.

She says that the group is expecting the outcome of the study to be favorable. "Conversion to natural gas has the support of the regulatory industry and the fleets," she adds. "Fleets are interested because conversion helps them meet EPA requirements for engine emissions. Conversion to LNG also results in lower cost, less maintenance, and less engine wear than petroleum based fuels."

There is a conversion cost, but Lauer says the ROI can be very fast. "A conversion can cost from hundreds of thousands of dollars to almost a million dollars, depending on the size of the vessel. However, these boats stay on the waters for many years, so an ROI of two to three years is a trivial amount of time in the life of a towboat."

Conversion from diesel to natural gas is not a straightforward process and Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers is building a stakeholder group to work together toward a common goal; among them natural gas producers, fuel distributors and fuel retailers, manufacturers of engines, fuel storage vessels, motor-generator sets, and other shipboard components that would be part of the fuel change, and vessel owners and operators that would be purchasing and operating their boats with the new fuel.

Lauer says that a whole spectrum of people are approaching them as they hear about the initiative so they can be involved from the ground floor, which she says is "awesomely cool."

In addition to the assessment study, Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers is working in parallel on a demonstration project, mostly funded through public funds, which would result in a converted tow as early as the end of the year. "We would be the first in the country to have a converted tow," claims Lauer. "It's an opportunity for the region to take a leadership role in the use of alternative fuels."