Perspectives with Stephe Yborra, Director of Market Development at NGVAmerica
A vast number of news articles and announcements are produced each week about fleets converting to natural gas, growing an existing NGV fleet, or opening new CNG stations. In the past few years, the rate of growth in the number of commercial fleets that have deployed NGVs has not only consistently increased, but has, in fact, accelerated.
NGVs are safe, environmentally sound, and most importantly, they make good business sense. The growing list of companies who have recognized these benefits and switched to natural gas includes AT&T, FedEx Freight, Frito-Lay, Inc., United Parcel Service (UPS), Waste Management, Verizon, Penske Systems, Inc. and Ryder System, Inc., to name just a few.
Despite the favorable attributes of natural gas vehicles, many fleet operators remain concerned about the relatively small number of fueling stations, the incremental cost of NGVs, variable payback time based on average miles traveled, and the lack of a consistent federal energy policy.
Furthermore, because natural gas differs significantly from traditional fuels such as gasoline and diesel, it requires a different set of codes and regulations for vehicle maintenance and maintenance facilities, safety standards, and fueling station design. As a result, fleet leaders must have a deeper understanding of the fuel itself to fully benefit from the use of NGVs.
Many questions must be asked when fleet planners consider moving toward natural gas transportation technologies, whether for national fleets in the commercial or large municipal sectors, or for the many hundreds of smaller privately owned, regional or community fleets.
The 2014 North American NGV Conference & Expo, co-hosted by NGVAmerica and the Canadian NGV Alliance (CNGVA), could be just the place for fleet operators to get their questions answered. The conference is a leading NGV-focused event which brings together NGV industry stakeholders, fleet operators, policymakers and advocates.
NGVi had a chance to sit down with Stephe Yborra, Director of Market Development at NGVAmerica, to chat about his views regarding the NGV Industry and learn more about the conference.
For those not familiar with NGVAmerica, can you tell us more about your organization and its role in the growth of the NGV market in the U.S.?
NGVAmerica is the national trade association of the U.S. NGV industry. Our members comprise the full gamut of stakeholders who have an interest in growing the NGV market. This includes the entire natural gas supply chain from the gas producers to the local distribution companies, OEMs, SVMs and vehicle upfitters, station developers and related equipment and service suppliers, and all the various component suppliers for those vehicles and stations. We also include federal, state and local government policy makers and regulators, Clean Cities Coalition coordinators, other clean-air/clean transportation policy advocates and fleet operators. Our membership now numbers over 250 companies/organizations and is growing. We provide a number of critical services including coordination of federal legislative advocacy efforts that reduce barriers and accelerate market entry, facilitation of our members’ and affiliated coalitions’ state advocacy initiatives, tracking and coordination of industry input regarding regulation, and market and technology analysis and assessment. NGVAmerica is committed to public outreach and education through speaking engagements and exhibiting at national conferences and workshops, web sites and blogs, articles in trade press and fielding of literally thousands of incoming calls and e-mails. We’re pretty busy for the size organization we are and the resources we have at our disposal.
In your opinion, what is the status of the natural gas vehicle industry today, relative to where it has been, and where it may be going?
This is an exciting time to be working on NGV issues and market growth. There’s been a crescendo in interest, activity and market engagement, driven by the confluence of several major drivers: 1) phenomenal growth in the amount of economically recoverable domestically produced natural gas supplies, which sustains the favorable price gap with diesel and gasoline, 2) an ever-growing selection of vehicles from familiar and trusted OEM sales/service channels (particularly in the HDV sector) which is building confidence in our technology and our ability to meet customer needs, and 3) broadening engagement by a number of fuel providers including local distribution companies (LDCs), dedicated natural gas retailers, “traditional” fuel retailers, and even some customers who’ve embraced their own role in expanding public access fueling.
As to where we are going, that will depend on our ability to keep innovating, investing in technology improvements and streamlining processes to maintain a favorable value proposition. Like any growing, vibrant industry, we continue to have growing pains—our success will depend on how well we address challenges. Of utmost importance is our commitment to safety.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges for NGV growth in the United States?
In addition to the comments above, I think we will continue to see increased adoption in the refuse, transit and regional hauling applications where fuel use and economics drive a great value proposition. I also see tremendous opportunity in the metro-based Class 3-6 fleet markets, the vehicles that do the same thing day-in, day-out, delivering food and beverages/restaurant supplies, textile services, home furnishings/appliances, newspapers, courier/delivery services, etc. Many of these applications have really favorable paybacks/ROI and they exist everywhere—in every market—small, medium and large.
More challenging in the near term is the consumer market. Some industry stakeholders keep pounding the message home that economies of scale will force prices down, and there is some truth to that argument. But the fact remains that NGVs will always have a premium that will extend paybacks. I think we need to focus more attention on attributes that appeal to the sizeable “early adopter” community—those driven by environmental, energy security, advanced technology, American fuel/American jobs, and other social drivers.
Last but not least, I think our industry can develop more collaborative market development strategies. Gas suppliers (LDCs, independent natural gas retailers, etc.) will all benefit if we can partner more effectively with truck and vehicle sales/service channels to collaboratively sell, e.g. coordinating market analyses of fleet locations and drive patterns against available gas services, targeting geographically, facilitating aggregated loads to achieve economic viability, etc. In too many places, there’s an apparent disconnect between stakeholders with mutual goals.
Can you elaborate on why natural gas is a good choice for most fleets? When it makes a good business case?
Fleets make the transition to natural gas for many reasons. There’s really no one answer and I can’t honestly say it’s a good choice for “most fleets”. There’s certainly a good case for MANY THOUSANDS of fleets who have yet to make the transition. High fuel use (relative to the vehicle premium) tends to drive economics, thus the focus on fleets. While favorable economics are usually the biggest driver (and even then, there are a variety of measurement parameters), we continue to see some fleets place value on the environmental benefits of the fuel, giving the “nod” to natural gas even if short term economics are only marginally favorable. Shippers’ carbon reduction strategies are starting to receive more play in the press, and in their contracting practices. While not the primary driver for natural gas in the trucking sector, it is interesting to see this facet get traction in the marketplace. Those fleets who are adopting natural gas technology now, and getting experience with the fuel and its technology, will be in the best position to benefit as it becomes more mainstream, which I have no doubt WILL be the case. I think we are in the midst of the “hockey stick” growth curve—momentum is building and the pace of adoption is accelerating.
What key factors must be taken into account by fleet leaders considering NGVs, and fleet leaders who are already using NGVs?
One size does not fit all. Conduct a comprehensive analysis of your application to see if it’s right for you, and do so at each location. Be committed and ready to run into–and to overcome–a few hurdles. Get buy-in from your entire team from maintenance staff, drivers to senior management. Be creative in solving problems. Have a plan but be flexible enough to adjust plans to circumstances to solve problems and take advantage of opportunities. There’s a learning curve–be prepared to embrace it with a “can-do” attitude if you want to garner all the benefits our fuel and technology have to offer; this is always the case with “new” ways of doing things.
Let’s talk about the conference. Can you give us a brief history? How did it come about and what has been your involvement?
The NGV Coalition (the predecessor to today’s NGVAmerica), hosted a successful “outwardly focused” conference and expo for years, driven in large part by the local gas companies who were most active in the early years of the industry’s growth and who brought their customers to our event. In the late 1990s, gas industry deregulation decimated many LDC’s NGV programs, and the industry experienced a shift in focus and players. No longer were gas companies able to host their prospective fleet customers’ attendance at an annual conference/expo.
In 2005, NGVAmerica changed strategies, repositioning our annual event as a two-day non-expo summit where industry stakeholders could gather to assess our progress, identify challenges/opportunities and strategize. Simultaneously, we corralled our industry into NGV zones at dozens of existing fleet events, effectively taking our message to where they already met, and it worked very well.
In late 2012, in response to growing interest in NGVs, we decided to re-launch a stand-alone customer-focused North American NGV Conference & Expo for 2013. Our 2013 event was even more successful than we had projected, with over 1,100 people attending/participating in the three-day event in Atlanta.
Please provide us with some details about your conference. What are the benefits of attending the conference? What should attendees expect? What makes the NGVAmerica conference different from other alternative fuel conferences held in the U.S.?
NGVAmerica’s 2014 North American Conference & Expo, which will be held in Kansas City, MO, November 11th-14th, focuses on timely topics and educational content. We don’t waste the attendees’ time with repetitive vague “30,000 foot” presentations about “abundant gas” and “great opportunities”. Our program strikes a balance of critical “big picture” issue discussions and over 20 breakout sessions where the emphasis is on practical application tips and experiences. Add to that a healthy dose of expo time where the industry’s largest gathering of natural gas vehicle, equipment and service providers make the most of B2B and B2C opportunities.
We’ve also included plenty of networking time for attendees to strike up new relationships and strengthen existing ones—these meals and social functions are done “A+”. There are many conferences addressing alternative fuels, frankly too many for the vendors to support, so it’s imperative that we provide value in program content and in quality of attendees. I think we do an exceptionally good job at the former. We have a great marketing plan in place to attract quality attendees, and we’ve priced our sponsorships and registration fees to deliver superior value for everyone. Our goal is between 1,250-1,500 attendees this year and we have nurtured relationships with a number of niche fleet-oriented trade associations who have agreed to be “supporting organizations”, which includes assistance in getting the word out to their members about the quality program we’ve assembled.