By Tom Berg, Senior Editor of Heavy Duty Trucking

Westport Innovations last week celebrated the grand opening of a facility for installing its WiNG bi-fuel conversion for Ford F-250 and F-350 pickups. Workers are starting to add natural gas systems to the gasoline-powered trucks, with production planned for gradual ramp-up to as many as 20,000 a year.

Called the Westport Kentucky Integration Center, the facility is across the street from Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant east of Louisville, said John Howell, senior director of marketing and business development for Westport Light Duty.

Close proximity allows new trucks to be taken to the Westport building and, when the WiNG installation is complete, to be returned to Ford's premises. From there the trucks are shipped by regular transporters to authorized dealers. To ensure factory quality, the Louisville-area facility is the only one that will do the WiNG conversions, he said.

"With bi-fuel, people don't need to worry about finding natural gas fuel," Howell said of the WiNG system's either-or capability. "They can run on gasoline if they need to. They should use natural gas most of the time, however."

The WiNG Power System is designed, built, installed and delivered "key-ready" to customers through Westport LD-authorized Ford dealers, he said. Westport is a Qualified Vehicle Modifier, so the Ford vehicle warranty remains intact and the additional components are warranted by Westport LD to the same levels.

Sixty Ford dealers have won Westport LD authorization, with more being added every week and 100 expected to be signed up by year's end, he said. Dealers must train at least one technician on the Westport system, stock methane-detection and leak-detection tools, and have the shop approved by a local fire marshal.

Dealers will not keep parts inventories. Parts are being stocked at the Louisville facility and can be shipped overnight to any dealers needing them, he said.

A WiNG Power System conversion costs $9,750, with discounts on orders of 25 or more, Howell said. Natural gas prices are now about half those of gasoline, which will make up the conversion cost and then greatly lower operating costs. So the system is best used on trucks that run a lot of miles and carry heavy payloads.

For now conversions will be done only on F-250 and 350 pickups. Later, WiNG will be available on bed-delete trucks, F-450 and 550 cab-chassis vehicles and vans.

Howell expects natural gas vehicles to take a larger share of vehicle sales as fueling stations are built. "It's now just 1% or so," he said. "It'll grow as infrastructure building takes place, on the main highways and on on back roads. Users are now dependent on their own facilities.

"In light duty, we're on a path now for natural gas to be a significant percentage," he continued. "In 10 years, it could be getting a third of light duty - the upper end of light duty, but lighter can come, in the F-150 and lighter vans. With them I can see 10-20% penetration in 10 years.

"As fueling infrastructure goes, so goes the business."