Natural gas getting a closer look from vehicle fleet managers
It's not just T. Boone Pickens crying in the wilderness anymore, it's accepted wisdom: Natural gas burns cleaner, and it's abundant in North America.
Practicality is no longer a close call, according to advocates who gathered Thursday with about 130 curious and cost-conscious people at the Champions Club for a workshop titled "The Compelling Case for Natural Gas Vehicles."
"There are no good arguments against it," said Paul Cammack, customer relations manager in Lincoln for Black Hills Energy, the gas company that serves 200 communities in eastern Nebraska. "The technology is here today, out in the parking lot."
Black Hills, Metropolitan Utilities District of Omaha and others displayed natural gas-powered vehicles outside the workshop.
Price certainly isn't an issue. If you had a natural gas-powered vehicle and a way to fill it up, you'd be saving 30 to 50 percent on fuel costs right now, according to Tim Hess, manager of gas marketing for Black Hills in Wichita, Kan., and point man for the company's promotion of natural gas as a motor fuel.
No, the issues are just getting a vehicle, retrofitted or new, those costs and access to the source of fuel, a commercial station or an appliance to make it possible to fill up from your home gas line.
Lincoln and Nebraska are making progress on all fronts:
Then there's Eric Hoke, owner of Eric's Electric in Lincoln, who's getting his van converted with guidance from Black Hills.
"He'll be our first private individual," Cammack said.
"It was my $5,200-a-month gas bill," Hoke said, explaining his commitment not only to his first van but to all eight. "Everything Black Hills had to offer, I fell in love with. ... I need to pass savings on to my customers."
Black Hills is acting as a facilitator locally but has no intention now of starting a public natural gas filling station, spokesman Bob McKeon said.
The go-to engine converter in these parts is Nick Wagoner, retired automotive technology teacher at Central Community College in Columbus.
His college president talked him into going to a conference a couple of decades ago, and he ended up chairman of the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium and has trained others all over the country.
He and his son, Lanny, now have an engine conversion, inspection and training business, Fuel Conversion Solutions, at Grain Valley, Mo., outside Kansas City.
Fleet business is getting the most attention, because it's easier for a fleet manager to justify setting up access to fuel and service. The everyday driver, Wagoner said, needs access to more fueling stations, infrastructure and home fueling units.
"Then the cars will come," he said.
Fleets of buses, vans and service vehicles are committing to natural gas all over the nation, and it's no longer a novelty. Cabs not fueled by natural gas can deliver passengers to Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix but can't pick them up, said Stephe Yborra, the keynote speaker and director of market development for NGVAmerica.
One in five buses on order right now will be fueled by natural gas, and most big semi manufacturers have models that work on natural gas.
There was a brief swell of attention to natural gas vehicles for consumers in the '90s, Wagoner said, but the roller-coaster nature of energy prices put that one down.
"We need to make a commitment and stay in it," he said.
Conversion is not an inexpensive proposition -- it's in the thousands of dollars -- but Wagoner and the Black Hills crew insist that lower operating costs make the expense recoverable.
Among the sponsors of the workshop were Clean Cities programs from Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas City.
So aside from the uncomfortable and coincidental fact of $4 gasoline, the program drew attention to the emissions advantages of fewer C's in the methane molecule.
"Our thing is, we're cleaner," Yborra said.
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