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JUTC, New Fortress bullish on natural gas pilot

Published:Wednesday | March 11, 2020 | 12:09 AMNeville Graham/Business Reporter
Regular JUTC articulated buses parked on their arrival in Kingston in 2018. JUTC and New Fortress Energy are pilot testing five buses powered by compressed natural gas. The regular fleet runs on diesel.
Regular JUTC articulated buses parked on their arrival in Kingston in 2018. JUTC and New Fortress Energy are pilot testing five buses powered by compressed natural gas. The regular fleet runs on diesel.

The Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) and its energy partner are yet to do the analysis, but the bus company is already encouraged by the raw data from the pilot testing of natural gas as a fuel source for its fleet.

New Fortress Energy, NFE, which proposed the pilot test, is also considering a fivefold addition to the natural gas-powered fleet, given the early signs, according to NFE Vice-President for Corporate Affairs Verona Carter.

The American company, which supplies all of Jamaica’s liquefied natural gas, LNG, and sees fleet operators and the transport market broadly as a potential business line, reached out to the Jamaican Government to test its concept.

New Fortress has pumped $400 million into the natural gas pilot, according to Paul Abrahams, managing director of the state-run Jamaica Urban Transit Company, who said the investment covered the gas infrastructure, including piping and pumping station installed at the JUTC depot, the natural gas supplied to fuel the buses, and the five buses used in the test, which were sourced from China through Von’s Motor at a cost of US$170,000 to US$175,000 each. JUTC bore none of the costs.

The American energy company has been trucking the gas to the Portmore depot from its station in Montego Bay – the same terminal from which it supplies the Bogue power plant operated by the Jamaica Public Service Company.

Initially, the JUTC had planned to test LNG as replacement fuel for diesel, but did the test with compressed natural gas, or CNG, instead, having determined that it would be a safer option.

They had the option of adjusting the fuel source or the bus tanks – and went with the former.

The volatility of LNG weighed heavily in the decision to convert the LNG to CNG for use in the buses, according to Managing Director at the JUTC, Paul Abrahams.

“The product comes in as a form of LNG and the plant processes it to CNG. We could have gone for thinner tanks, but in the interest of commuter safety we went for thicker tanks using CNG,” Abrahams told the Financial Gleaner.

Since last September, five CNG-fuelled JUTC buses have been plying the Portmore-Kingston route using gas supplied by New Fortress Energy. The routes used for the pilot were constrained by the fuelling infrastructure, which was installed by New Fortress at one JUTC compound, the Portmore depot.

The assets being used for the pilot are owned by New Fortress. But given the early signs of the savings to the bus company over the six-month pilot, which is expected to wrap up this month, Abrahams says the JUTC is inclined towards investing in and owning its fuelling infrastructure, which would be deployed at each of its three depots.

That decision will likely be better informed by the results of the pilot programme, when the numbers have been crunched.

Otherwise, the JUTC is also considering adding electric vehicles to the fleet somewhere down the line under a different programme, Abrahams indicated.

LNG comes from the ground in gas form, which is liquefied after extraction for ease of transportation. LNG is a lighter and therefore more volatile gas – containing methane and ethane – when compared with liquefied petroleum gas or LPG, which contains denser gases, such as propane and butane.

Both LNG and LPG can be used for a range of applications, including cooking and heating, and transportation fuel. LNG, paradoxically, requires more robust tanks and specialised infrastructure due to its greater volatility.

The five buses under the pilot programme are fuelled once per day at the Portmore depot. They ply the flat 12A Portmore-to-Kingston route. For control purposes, the five CNG-fuelled buses are being run under the same conditions as five diesel-powered buses, covering distances of 250-275 kilometres daily.

Abrahams says the results are still coming in and that while a straight-line comparison with the diesel buses may pose challenges, two important considerations will be overall maintenance and cost per kilometre, in assessing the viability of the new fuel source.

“We are still collecting data on the fuel savings, which from all indications is quite good. One of the things that we’re trying to do is to compare apples to apples, and since we’re running newer buses against older diesel buses the comparison is difficult; so miles covered is important,” Abrahams noted.

“Along with tracking fuel savings, we’re also tracking maintenance,” he said.

Given the positive results so far, it’s likely that the CNG fleet will be expanded, according to both Abrahams and Carter.

“In the beginning when we had discussions, what we asked them to do was to build the plant to accommodate 50-60 units. I don’t know that anyone would have spent a significant amount of money to just run five buses,” Abrahams said.

“I think they are convinced that the data will be successful enough to engage in further discussions about future buses,” he added.

Carter confirmed the fleet expansion, but at less than half the levels hoped for by Abrahams.

“There are plans to increase the fleet by an additional 25 buses, and the potential for additional programmes,” said the NFE vice-president.