2012 September 28

The Master Resource Report  2012-09-28

Natural gas powered locomotive

It was only a matter of time before the railroad industry took a serious look at natural gas to fuel its locomotives.

Courtesy of Canadian National Railway

EDMONTON, Sept. 27, 2012 — CN announced today it is testing two mainline diesel-electric locomotives fuelled principally by natural gas in revenue service in northern Alberta.

Keith Creel, executive vice-president and chief operating officer, said: “CN launched this locomotive test to explore the use of natural gas as a potential alternative to conventional diesel fuel. This reflects CN’s continuing drive to look for ways to improve operating efficiency and advance the company’s sustainability agenda.

It makes sense for railroads to explore natural gas as a fuel given the ability to have fixed routes, schedules and fueling stations. It may be time to add one more major potential consumer to the demand side of natural gas.

The demonstration unit runs on a 90% natural gas 10% diesel fuel mix to facilitate ignition. Other development work is being done with 100% natural gas fueled engines by other manufactures and railroads.

Note: Clients and Advisors of Ravenna Capital Management hold positions in Canadian National at this time.

Do the Federal Tax Credits Make Electric Vehicles Cost-Competitive?

Results of a study to answer that question by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will not go down well with electric vehicle supporters. It continues to look like the shorter range (15-25+ mile) plug-in-hybrids are the sweet spot for now.

“At current vehicle and energy prices, the lifetime costs to consumers of an electric vehicle are generally higher than those of a conventional vehicle or traditional hybrid vehicle of similar size and performance, even with the tax credits, which can be as much as $7,500 per vehicle. That conclusion takes into account both the higher purchase price of an electric vehicle and the lower fuel costs over the vehicle’s life. For example, an average plug-in hybrid vehicle with a battery capacity of 16 kilowatt-hours would be eligible for the maximum tax credit. However, that vehicle would require a tax credit of more than $12,000 to have roughly the same lifetime costs as a comparable conventional or traditional hybrid vehicle.

An interesting counter point to this CBO report and a pragmatic assessment of electric vehicles was given Wednesday morning by Bob Lutz, GM Vice Chairman and genuine car guy. Link to online video.

He made the point several times that there currently are no factory incentives for the Chevy Volt which probably will surprise most critics of the car.

On the Chevy Volt web page (slightly down the page) there are three very interesting digital displays that report in real time the total miles traveled in all electric mode by all the Volts. The total miles driven using gasoline and electric and the gallons of fuel saved so far by the fleet of Volts [currently over 4.5 million gallons].

One very interesting data point is that approximately 62% of all miles driven by Chevy Volts so far have been electric only. It appears the plug-in-hybrid is doing a very respectable job of providing plenty of electric only miles within the usage profile it was designed to meet.

Clearly the debate over the Chevy Volt and electric vehicles in general is not over. But keep your eyes open, the future is driving quietly down the road next to you.

Note: Currently clients and advisors at Ravenna Capital Management do not hold positions in GM.