BNSF, Second Largest Consumer of Diesel Fuel, Looks at Switching to CNG


Did you know that BNSF, the railway company owned by Warren Buffet’s Birkshire Hathaway, is probably the second largest purchaser of diesel fuel in the United States, coming in only after the US Navy?

That’s a lot of diesel fuel.

With diesel prices near $4 per gallon, and natural gas (CNG) at around half of that price, the savings from switching to CNG on such a large scale become quite large.

The Wall Street Journal reports that BNSF has at least 6,900 existing locomotives that run on diesel now, which means that it could be quite expensive to convert them all. However, BNSF is working with General Electric and Caterpillar to make an engine that can run on both diesel and natural gas.

Aside from the fuel savings, another big incentive for BNSF to switch to natural gas is to be able to meet new federal air pollution standards that will hit around 2015.

One of the biggest challenges of converting diesel 18 wheelers over to natural gas is the cost of building the infrastructure to have fueling stations everywhere they would be needed. With trains, it is much, much easier to solve this problem, because trains always go on a predetermined route. So you could build fewer refueling stations and still keep everything going.

However you feel about fracking, it looks like natural gas can make a significant difference in both CO2 emissions and air pollution in general.

In fact, CO2 emissions have dramatically dropped by nearly 12 percent over the past five years, reaching levels that we haven’t seen since 1996. This is attributed largely to the switch from electric power generators moving from coal to natural gas.

AZ_Utilitarian September 15, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Right now natural gas is at historic low prices. BNSF would logically need to have dual-fuel vehicles to compensate for inevitable market price fluctuations. In fact, BNSF is a large enough user of diesel and possibly soon natural gas to affect the market prices. I really doubt that BNSF will do anything other than threaten to convert their fleet. They’re really not big innovators. The obvious “solution” is electric trains just like in Europe. Their electricity comes from HRSG (look it up) central generation, hydroelectric, wind & solar. HRSG plants typically see fuel/electric conversion efficiencies of 50-60%. Internal combustion engines have typical efficiencies 0f 20-25%, 40% for the best diesels. So 30-50% of the fuel is wasted right off the bat when compared to a modern electric power station. And BNSF ALREADY has electric trains – the VFD traction motors are presently driven by onboard diesel generators. All they lack is the trackside distribution infrastructure.
Also – electric trains aren’t carrying their fuel. They don’t waste time/man power refueling. The engines don’t carry 6000 gallons of fuel to burn or leak into the creek when they derail. Most electric trains can return power to the grid when they are in dynamic braking on a downhill; they actually MAKE power. So the whole idea of BNSF converting to CNG is probably a ploy to squeeze a better price out of their golf buddies at Texaco or Enron or Shell.

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