BRIDGEPORT, CONNECTICUT — I am standing in a parking lot, in an industrial part of this gritty city. On one side of me is Wheelabrator's huge RESCO garbage-to-energy plant, and on the other is a big row of heavy-duty trucks—all of them running on very clean natural gas.

Enviro Express, whose parking lot this is, is a no-frills waste hauler, and hauling raw material for RESCO is Job One. This isn’t a “green business,” and owner Bill Malone—a lifelong trucker—is no Al Gore. But he knows value when he sees it, and that’s why his public liquified natural gas (LNG) station fuels 100 trucks a day, and has pumped a million gallons of this fast-rising fuel since 2010.

LNG, which sells for approximately $2 a gallon (versus $4 for diesel), is fast becoming the fuel of choice for long-distance trucking and, yes, you can thank fracking for that. We can and should talk about the environmental hazards of fracking, but the fact is, the country is awash in cheap natural gas, and it’s starting to ripple through the economy. That, and very credible LNG trucks are finally available. “Technology made this happen,” said Malone. “I see LNG being used on trains, ferries and ships. And it’s the future of trucking.”

The $6.2 million Bridgeport station was funded in part by Department of Energy stimulus money, but it could undoubtedly stand on its own at this point. Malone was inspired by meeting natural gas advocate T. Boone Pickens, but he could just as easily have been motivated by the almighty dollar. That’s what rings Frito-Lay’s bells.

Mike O’Connell, senior director for fleet operations at Frito-Lay (part of giant Pepsico) told me that his company will have 208 of its large Class A tractors like the one above running on compressed natural gas (LNG’s non-refrigerated cousin) by the end of 2013. That’s 20 percent of the Class A fleet. It’s also building eight public CNG fueling stations around the country—in Wisconsin (opening June 19), Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Connecticut and Kansas—that will service Frito’s fleet, but also be open to other companies. In five years, the company should be pumping eight million gallons of CNG annually.

Frito-Lay is, of course, saving tons of money while it saves the planet. The payback period when buying CNG tractors is less than two years. “These trucks leave my plant and distribute their snacks to warehouses and come back,” said O’Connell. “It’s perfect for CNG, and a win-win for Pepsico.”

Why not LNG, you may ask? “CNG is 50 cents a gallon cheaper per gallon because it doesn’t need to be temperature-controlled,” O’Connell said, “and we’re not doing really long hauls. Our average route is 400 miles.” Hybrid trucks were piloted, but Frito didn’t get great results—its trucks don’t stop and start enough for the hybrid drivetrain to be effective (only a 10-16 percent improvement in fuel economy).

Battery electrics do work for Frito-Lay. After all, Fritos corn chips are a light load. The company has 280 short-haul electric box trucks from Smith Electric, offsetting 500,000 gallons of diesel. “Drivers love them,” said O’Connell. Smith itself has now delivered 700 of those trucks, covering more than five million miles in operation. There’s a huge potential market for either natural gas or electric here, since there are six million medium-duty commercial trucks on the road, a $40 billion market, in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Back in Connecticut, I’m looking over a long-haul LNG truck with Lee Grannis, who runs the New Haven-area Clean Cities Coalition, which is highly supportive of the Bridgeport station. “These aren’t science or pilot programs anymore,” he said. “We’re on to commercial deployment, and getting these trucks on the road—three other Connecticut fleets are converting. By using these trucks, we reduce foreign oil dependency, tap into a price that’s half that of diesel, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent.” O’Connell says 23 percent, but it’s the same ballpark.

While I was talking to Ed Boman, the ultra-green public works guy in my town of Fairfield (whose idea it initially was to put in LNG pumps at Enviro Express), a Bridgeport taxi (above) glided up and hooked into the company's natural gas pump. City taxis running on CNG? Yes, said driver Bernard Ganty, he is one of 19 cabbies piloting natural gas Metro Taxis in Bridgeport. A green revolution I didn’t even know about. That’s exciting.

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The big rigs run on natural gas
natural gas trucks