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Mercedes Benz Natural Gas Semi
An 18-wheeler can burn as much fuel in a year as 40 cars. The typical semi-trailer truck guzzles 20,000 gallons of diesel annually. So switching trucks to natural gas from diesel, which comes from oil, could provide another alternative to petroleum use. And it wouldn't require building nearly as many new fueling stations as switching America's roughly 240 million cars and light trucks to something other than oil.

Buyers of these natural-gas trucks have received government subsidies that have helped defray the higher purchase price.  According to Clean Energy Fuels Corporation., an installer of natural-gas fueling stations that is partly owned by billionaire investor T. Boone Pickens, 15% of U.S. buses and trash trucks run on natural gas.

Trucks configured to burn natural gas cost more than trucks that run on diesel. They need modified engines and bigger and stronger fuel tanks. A trash truck that costs $200,000 outfitted for diesel costs only another $10,000—or 5% more— equipped for natural gas, according to some estimates.
Today, only about 4% of Republic's 14,700 trucks nationwide run on natural gas.
Long-haul trucks present a bigger challenge. In the U.S., they consume about 10 times as much diesel as trash trucks and buses combined. The biggest guzzlers are 18-wheelers, which average six miles per gallon. Some 225,000 were sold in the U.S. last year, but many analysts expect that number to soar to 400,000 this year, as the economy improves.  Fewer than 1,000 natural-gas 18-wheeler tractors have been sold in the U.S., industry experts say.

United Parcel Service Inc., which runs one of the country's biggest truck fleets, pays about $95,000 for an average long-haul "tractor"—the front part of the 18-wheeler, housing the engine and driver. It recently ordered 48 natural-gas versions at a cost of $195,000 apiece—about double the cost of a diesel model. UPS bought its natural-gas trucks only after getting $4 million in federal stimulus money to help defray the cost. At current fuel prices, the trucks should easily pay for themselves in less than the 10 years UPS expects to drive them. But UPS typically expects equipment to pay off within three years. As a result, UPS won't buy more natural-gas trucks unless the government forks over additional subsidies, said Mr. Britt. The shipper supports the pending federal bill.

President Obama, 190 Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the natural-gas industry and major trucking firms are promoting a federal bill to broaden that transformation. Under the bill, a company like UPS that spent an extra $100,000 to buy a natural-gas truck would get an $80,000 tax credit.

Federal officials haven't yet officially estimated the bill's cost. But T. Boone Pickens estimates the taxpayer price tag would be about $5 billion over five years, for about 140,000 trucks and the necessary fueling stations. Mr. Pickens and his wife own 41% of Clean Energy Fuels, the installer of natural-gas-vehicle fueling stations. (WSJ, 5/11/2011)