What do locomotives have to do with transportation fuels? Maybe a lot. Warren Buffet, who owns BNSF Railway Co., the largest railroad and one of the largest consumers of diesel fuel in the US, is planning to begin testing the use of natural gas as fuel for the locomotives in the 6900 unit BNSF fleet. Others have been been experimenting with natural gas, too, but BNSF, in conjunction with GE and Caterpillar, is working on the technology to try it out. If the tests are successful, it could change the landscape of much of the transportation fuel market.
Natural gas exists in enormous quantities in the US and the price is very low compared to most any other fuel, but widespread adoption for transportation has been slow because the infrastructure for fueling isn’t in place except in limited areas which in turn slows the growth of vehicle demand in a back and forth question of who’s going to make the first move. BNSF, using as much diesel fuel as it does, has a huge incentive to look for alternatives and cheap natural gas is, well, a natural. If they move, it makes a difference and gives other railroads the confidence to jump in, too. With locomotives on set routes, it’s easy to build the LNG infrastructure to supply them which could then potentially spread the availability of natural gas in one form or another for long haul trucks, as well.
If trains switch to LNG in place of diesel fuel, the demand for diesel will decrease, helping to stabilize prices and making us less dependent on unreliable sources. It also makes more oil available for use in gasoline, increasing the supply, stabilizing prices and again, making us less dependent on oil from elsewhere. Increasing use of natural gas for transportation decreases emissions, too, especially compared to diesel.
Though motorcycles are probably the least likely vehicles to be converted to natural gas in any numbers, the effect on the price and availability of all of the other transportation fuels makes this locomotive conversion to LNG very interesting. It’s also a pretty cool evolution, from the coal burning steam locomotives to the diesel burning locomotives we currently use to the new LNG powered trains. It won’t happen overnight, retrofitting old units and buying new will take time, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once to make a big difference.
While everyone is waiting for the magic batteries to appear, this is a technology that’s here right now and it can have some very positive effects in both lower cost and lower emissions. It sounds like a big win to me, I like it.
Link: Wall Street Journal