Life is always a journey in the world of distribution, and for Bob McGuire, vice-president and director of logistics at Chicago-based Alpha Baking Co., the search for a greener fleet has meant taking the road less traveled.

During the past seven years, Mr. McGuire, who is also chairman of the American Bakers Association’s Logistics Committee, tested the limits of technology by tinkering with hydrogen-fuel systems, biodiesel and even recycled vegetable oil as alternatives to gasoline and diesel for its fleet.

“Recycled vegetable oil worked,” he said. “The problem was just getting enough of it to run our vehicles.”

“Apparently,” joked Mike Marcucci, Alpha Baking’s CEO, “people aren’t eating enough French fries. Go figure.”

The bakery’s latest venture, however, involves a fuel that America has in great abundance and a technology that provides a sustainable alternative to gasoline and diesel. Mr. McGuire explored it and thought the grass might be greener on this side.

In June, Alpha Baking celebrated the grand opening for its fleet of liquid propane autogas trucks. In all, the company now operates 22 step vans in the Chicagoland area. Based at North Aurora, IL, this fleet — the nation’s only Ford/Roush propane-powered step van fleet — will save 60,000 gal of diesel fuel a year.

Building a better tomorrow

Why did Alpha Baking do it? Mr. McGuire explained that American-made propane creates jobs, reduces greenhouse gasses and could eventually cut the nation’s dependency on foreign oil.

“The technology to run our fleets on compressed natural gas (CNG), propane and electric is here,” Mr. McGuire noted. “The infrastructures are more or less developed, so caution needs to be employed in pursuing an alternative energy method, but the opportunity exists for those in the know.”

To develop the liquid propane program, Mr. McGuire spent 15 months researching the possibility after hearing legendary Texas oil and gas executive T. Boone Pickens talk about the potential for this alternative fuel.

Alpha Baking selected Penske Truck Leasing to serve as its commercial truck fleet maintenance service provider for its 2013 Rousch CleanTech liquid propane ­autogas-powered Ford E-450 bread delivery trucks, which will emit about 2 million fewer lb of carbon dioxide over their lifetime.

“One of the biggest changes within the trucking industry over the past three years is the opportunity to employ alternative-energy vehicles in step van and Class 7 and 8 vehicle operations,” Mr. McGuire said. “A tremendous amount of progress has been made. Alternative-energy vehicles have been the highlight at national truck shows the past couple of years.”

Additionally, one of Alpha Baking’s trucks, which feature colorful graphics and such phrases as “lower carbon emissions,” “progressive” and “100% propane powered,” will be on display at the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE), to be held Oct. 6-9 in Las Vegas.

Alpha Baking joins a growing number of bakeries and snack manufacturers exploring alternative fuels and the route truck of the future since the last IBIE three years ago.

Cellone’s Bakery, Pittsburgh, has operated propane-powered trucks for more than 30 years in an effort to find a more affordable alternative to gas and diesel, according to Brandon Cellone, treasurer. Over the years, he noted, technology has improved significantly. Today, 28 of its 44 routes are propane trucks.

Earlier this summer, executives from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay North America (FLNA) division along with US Department of Energy and Wisconsin state officials unveiled Frito-Lay’s inaugural CNG fueling station in Beloit, WI.

By the end of this year, the Plano, TX-based company will break ground on seven public CNG fueling stations across the US and continue to grow its CNG fleet, bringing the total number of Frito-Lay’s CNG tractors to 208.

Once deployed, Frito-Lay noted, these CNG vehicles will make up 20% of the snack producer’s fleet and be located at 50% of its production locations.

According to Frito-Lay, the new CNG fueling stations will not only provide fuel for these tractors and help pave the way for more CNG vehicles to be introduced into the Frito-Lay fleet but will also make available fuel for other companies currently using or considering alternative-fuel vehicles in the future.

“This initiative to build much-needed natural gas infrastructure for large commercial vehicles is part of Frito-Lay’s deep commitment to the environment,” said Mike O’Connell, FLNA’s senior director for fleet operations, in a statement by the company. “When all 208 CNG tractors are in service, Frito-Lay will eliminate 7,863 metric tons of carbon emissions, the equivalent of more than 1,125 cars annually.”

In the US, Frito-Lay hopes to reduce its overall total fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020, compared with its 2007 baseline.

In addition to CNG vehicles, the company relies on all-electric trucks as part of its delivery fleet. In 2012, it began purchasing 100 all-electric ­commercial vehicles from Smith Electric Vehicles, bringing the total size of its electric fleet to more than 280. These electric trucks eliminate the need for some 500,000 gal of diesel fuel each year.

When venturing into alternative fuels, Mr. McGuire said it’s not about return on investment.

“It’s about doing the right thing,” he explained.