Forum: Converting Tugs, Towboats to LNG May Take Some Time

Washington PA Observer Reporter
24 October 2014
By Michael Bradwell, Business Editor

OAKDALE – A group of maritime executives and public officials agreed Friday there is tremendous potential for converting the region’s tugs and towboats to liquefied natural gas, but several said the goal may be a long voyage filled with challenges.

That was the conclusion of a day-long LNG Marine Forum at Community College of Allegheny County’s West Campus, part of a Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers initiative to build a natural gas marine corridor that would stretch from Morgantown, W.Va., through Pennsylvania and down the Ohio River to Huntington, W.Va..

The ultimate goal of the effort will be to expand the potential of natural gas as a replacement for diesel fuel to an often overlooked inland waterway system that encompasses about 12,000 miles of navigable waters.

Jan Lauer, president of the Pittsburgh Region Clean Cities initiative, said her group saw the region’s waterways as a place where it could work with river boat operators to achieve a cleaner environment through using alternative fuels in place of diesel, while helping the river industry here enjoy broader economic benefits.

The Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers consortium has a number of partners that attended and participated in Friday’s forum, including the American Waterways Operators, Fleet Energy America, Life Cycle Engineering, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Peoples Natural Gas, WPX Energy, The Shearer Group, Port of Pittsburgh Commission and Revolutionary LNG.

A busy port

It was noted several times during the day that Pittsburgh is now the second-largest inland port in the United States in terms of freight tonnage handled, and is the 13th busiest of all types of American ports – inland and coastal – surpassing those in Baltimore, Philadelphia and St. Louis in commercial activity.

Another fact made abundantly clear by Robert Petsinger, a veteran of natural gas applications for vehicles of all types dating to 1960, and chief executive officer of Marcellus Marketing Inc., is the concept of adapting LNG and compressed natural gas for cars and trucks has been around since the early years of the 20th century. Today, he said, there are more than 20 million vehicles running on natural gas.

As for marine vessels, presenters noted that the European shipping industry has been using LNG for years, with a strong fueling infrastructure to accompany the activity.

In the United States, the growing abundance of domestically produced natural gas means there will be a good supply of feedstock, said Tom Risley of Pittsburgh-based Life Cycle Engineering, who studied the fuel’s potential for the Clean Fuels/Clean Rivers Consortium.

“The good news is it’s there, the good news is we can get it up (out of the ground), but can we use it?” said Risley, who noted that LNG used in commercial river vessels would greatly reduce sulfur and carbon dioxide while reducing operating costs.

“The largest operating costs for fleet operators is fuel,” he said.

Risley’s group found that the market for LNG from a commercial river vessel perspective would be robust. According to data provided at the forum, there are 3,900 tow boats with 112 fleets in operation between the Mississippi and the Gulf Coast.

One of the biggest challenges seen by Risley is the infrastructure needed to provide fueling operations along the rivers.

Design challenges

When it comes to tugs and towboats, another challenge is designing vessels that can safely and efficiently accept the cylindrical fuel tanks, said Greg Beers, an engineer and president of Houston-based Shearer Group, which designs marine vessels of all types.

Putting fuel storage tanks filled with LNG, which can be volatile in small craft, is something particularly problematic, Beers added, noting that it remains to be seen how regulations will be written for the vessels, which to date, are essentially unregulated.

Tugs and towboats are classified by the U.S. Coast Guard as UTVs, an acronym for uninspected towing vessels. While Congress said 10 years ago that the Coast Guard should inspect them, the final regulations may be several years away, Beers said.

“The last revolution for tugboats was World War II when diesel engines built for the war effort were chosen to replace coal-burning engines,” he said.

One distributor of LNG said Friday that a possible solution for infrastructure could involve trucks fueling vessels directly, but acknowledged that it would need to be done in an efficient, economical and safe way.

“Like everything in LNG industry, it’s baby steps, it’s going to be incremental,” said David Kailbourne, chief executive officer of REV LNG, one of the first trucking operators to convert its traditional diesel-fueled trucks to LNG. The company also creates both LNG and CNG fueling stations for deployment to locations that do not have access to natural gas pipeline service.

Regardless of the challenges, one participant said Friday that creative uses for LNG are already being demonstrated.

During Friday’s luncheon, keynote speaker B. Perry Babb, president of Fleet Energy America, showed photos of the world’s first turbine engine-powered, high-speed ferry fueled by LNG.

The ferry is operated by Buquebus, an Argentinian company that provides a floating hotel and casino in Buenos Aires on a vessel capable of reaching 58 knots, or 66 miles per hour.

Buquebus solved its fueling problem when Galileo Technologies deployed its “Cryobox” LNG fuel farm nearby, a storage technology it has begun making in the U.S.

“Finding business models that work along with technology are critical,” Babb said.