Alternative fuels revolutionize distribution

by Joanie Spencer
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Bimbo Bakeries USA launched a total of 84 propane trucks for fleets in Chicago, Denver and Washington, DC.
 

Across the country, owners of every type of vehicle have been breathing a sigh of relief as gas prices have gone down in the past year. However, getting a break at the pump doesn’t mean delivery fleet managers should stop thinking about solutions. When it comes to fleet management, there are more factors to consider beyond the dollars and cents.

Supporting a corporate philosophy

Bimbo Bakeries USA (BBU), Horsham, PA, saw fuel technology in its fleets as an issue of sustainability. “Bimbo’s corporate philosophy is to bring together our economic and social goals with awareness and commitment to reduce our environmental footprint,” said Gary Maresca, senior director of fleet services for BBU. To serve this philosophy, BBU turned to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) — also known as propane — from Roush CleanTech for its fleets in Chicago, Denver and Washington, DC.

BBU launched 30 Ford F-59 trucks in the Chicago area in January, followed by fleets in Denver and then in DC, 84 trucks in all. Chicago was the natural choice for the launch, Mr. Maresca said, based on vehicle lifecycles and maintenance strategy.

Thus far, the new fleet has served BBU’s corporate sustainability efforts well. “The lower emissions and aggregate contribution to a green and sustainable operation are some of the more prominent benefits to date,” Mr. Maresca said.

Dave Sowers, head of Ram Commercial, indicated that a sense of corporate responsibility is one of the two biggest driving factors for using alternative fuels. “Businesses have genuine desire to be environmentally friendly,” he said. “It’s a personal desire that they want to have reflected in their business image.”

But cost of ownership, Mr. Sowers said, is the driver that actually trumps the environmental concerns, especially when average gas prices are dropping below $2.50 per gal. “Everything they do is driven by getting the job done they need to get done but doing it at the lowest cost possible by the life of the vehicle,” he suggested.
Right-sizing a fleet by matching thes right vehicle to the appropriate route will lead to efficiency and sustainability in addition to reduced cost of ownership.
 

A new monetary incentive

When gasoline prices went down, some of the excitement for alternative fuels went down with it, signifying Americans’ love affair with the fuel. While propane picked up in popularity during the great recession, it is now competing with gasoline once again, despite the fact that propane fuel powers more than 25 million vehicles worldwide.

“Human nature is resistant to change, and gasoline and diesel have a 100-year head-start on convincing decision-makers that those fuels are the ‘right’ choice,” said Todd Mauw, vice-president, sales and marketing, Roush CleanTech, which has spent the past decade designing, engineering, testing and manufacturing fuel systems for Ford trucks, vans and cutaways that are used in the baking industry.

“We see propane autogas as a leading energy source to help fleets move away from higher cost and more complex fuels such as diesel,” Mr. Mauw noted. “The properties of propane make it a very attractive resource for transportation: domestic supply, significantly cleaner, high octane rating, great power and performance, lower cost, easily transportable, low cost of infrastructure, and great driving range, among others.”

Grant funding available in certain areas is another incentive to use alternative fuels. BBU chose the Colorado and Maryland markets for that very reason.

“Our strategy is to continue to pursue LPG opportunities wherever significant grant funds can be secured,” Mr. Maresca said, noting that that the company has applied for grand funds to expand the existing operations in Colorado and Maryland, along with new initiatives in Pennsylvania and California.

Just as BBU is taking advantage of grant funds, bakery fleet managers can take advantage of benefits including financial incentives by using alternative fuels. For example, many companies install their own fueling infrastructure, which not only allows for lower cost of fuel and a simpler process but also potential tax incentives.

An incentive in the form of 50 cents on the gallon is available for companies who sell compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), liquefied hydrogen, LPG and more.

Brian Tabel, executive director of marketing, Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, suggested that companies with their own private fueling stations have the opportunity to take advantage of that benefit and it becomes a win-win in the community. “Let’s say a company invests in a fueling station that its neighbors can also use. That company has the ability to get the tax benefits as well as the company using the fueling source,” he said.

“One of the advantages of LPG is the relatively low cost of installing a filling station on-site and subsequent maintenance of the vehicles that can be serviced in any existing and approved gasoline maintenance garage with minimal investment, if any, as per local fire ordinance,” Mr. Maresca explained. 
Propane fueling stations offer financial benefits such as a lower infrastructure cost.
 

New ways to go green

When it comes to being sustainable — and cost-effective — with fleets, it’s all about knowing what the options are, and that involves doing a bit of homework. One size doesn’t necessarily fit all, and the right solution may come in a variety of ways.

For example, Isuzu offers two types of diesel engines and a gasoline engine, in addition to CNG and LPG. Ten years ago, fleets were outfitted with the same truck for the whole route, no matter how many trucks were in the fleet. “Once we came out of the downturn of the economy, fleet managers looked at the business, and as it grew, they ‘right-sized’ their fleet,” Mr. Tabel said. He suggested that building a fleet with a combination of vehicles that meet specific needs for specific areas, markets or routes is worth considering. “Fleet managers have options. They’re not pigeon-holing themselves with one truck,” he said. “They have options to right-size the fleet to the right route.”

Choice is a big factor driving the right-sizing trend, according to Mr. Sowers. Just 10 years ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case. “For a lot of years, vans were all the same. Body on frame, front engine, rear wheel drive, most V8 engines,” he suggested.

Bakers who used to purchase old trucks or the old formula of van can now buy vehicles such as the Promaster City class 1 van, according to Mr. Sowers, because it has 1800 lb of payload and more than 130 cu ft of storage. “And they can get 29 mpg when they’re driving around empty,” he added.

Another key to marry kindness to the environment with cost-consciousness is through maintenance. “As long as a vehicle continues to be maintained, the truck should run, operate and do the job it needs to do,” Mr. Tabel said. Isuzu diesel trucks are equipped with a vehicle health report that can show data for things like idle time, acceleration and braking rates. “It just gives the ability to educate not only the driver on how the truck’s being driven but, more importantly, the one that’s making the investment in the vehicle,” he added.

Mr. Sowers noted that Ram has put a strong focus on reducing the oil that’s used as well as extending the maintenance cycle on its vehicles. “Small businesses love this because fewer oil changes mean less time the vehicle is out of service,” he said. “If the vehicle’s not on the road, it’s not making money.”

With choice being a factor in matching the right vehicle type with the appropriate route needs, Ram also offers a truck that is CNG, but with a bi-fuel configuration, meaning that it can run on gasoline if it has to. “It can go up to 200 miles, and if the driver has to go further that and doesn’t have a CNG refueling opportunity they can drive on gasoline until he gets back,” Mr. Sowers explained.

Clean for all

Alternative fuel technology — as well as general fuel efficiency — is not reserved for elite baking companies like BBU. “We can support vehicles of all shapes and sizes up to straight trucks at 33,000 lb,” Mr. Mauw said. “Because the cost of fueling infrastructure is the least expensive of any fuel including gasoline and diesel we find that propane is very scalable for small bakery fleets all the way up to the biggest, including BBU.”

The key to making sure a bakery’s fleet is equipped to most efficiently and cost-effectively— as well as sustainably—run its routes, the legwork is critical. “Do your homework,” Mr. Mauw advised, suggesting that fleet managers engage the automotive OEM in discussion to make sure they are partnering with the right company.

Mr. Sowers also suggested that companies perform due diligence to ensure they’re making the right fit for the fleet. With a little bit of research and a big commitment to vehicle efficiency and clean use, bakeries of all sizes can participate in cleaning up their fleets in ways that serve their operations the best.
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