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CNG in Denver Post

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  • CNG in Denver Post

    Article from Sunday's Denver Post. Nice coverage on CNG.

  • #2
    Re: CNG in Denver Post

    Very nice coverage on CNG. Too bad the state of Colorado doesn't use it:

    the Lion's share of the alternative fuels goes to ethanol. What a waste of money and taxes.


    • #3
      Re: CNG in Denver Post (article text)

      Here is the article:

      There is a magic fuel for your car.

      In Colorado, where gasoline now sells for an average $4.03 a gallon, the fuel is selling for $2.89.

      In Utah, you can buy it for 63 cents a gallon. In Oklahoma, 91 cents.

      Burning it instead of gasoline cuts greenhouse emissions up to 30 percent. People fly to Denver from Salt Lake City just to buy a used magic-fuel vehicle at government auction and take it back to Utah for cheap driving.

      So what's this mystical fuel?

      Compressed natural gas, the darling of the clean-fuel movement of the 1990s, still ready and waiting at pumping stations for a revolution that never happened. Blame utility companies, automakers, environmental bureaucracy, the ethanol fad — when fans ask who put the brakes on the natural-gas car, there are plenty of suspects.

      "The oil companies in power had no interest in promoting a fuel that would hurt their business," argues John Ingersoll, an alternative-fuel expert and author of "Natural Gas Vehicles."

      "The public has no clue natural gas can be used," he said. "They don't make the connection. And nobody knows the price difference, either."

      Poised for rapid growth

      As with many alternative-fuel concepts, the natural-gas car is something of a chicken-or-egg problem. Consumers don't want to buy or convert existing cars if it's hard to find the fuel, and energy companies don't want to build fueling stations if there are no cars lining up to use them.

      "We always wondered where the price spike would have to be to get people knocking on our doors," said James Orsulak, Clean Energy Fuel's manager for Colorado and Oklahoma. "When diesel hit about $4.50 a gallon, that's when we started getting a lot more phone calls" for potential new fueling stations.

      Natural-gas fleets are in use on Denver's 16th Street Mall shuttle, Denver International Airport's circulating buses and ramp vehicles, and in some federal and state vehicles.

      Still, the percentages are small: Nationwide, the amount of natural gas used by vehicles in a year is less than one day's volume of gasoline.

      A trade organization estimates there are 8 million natural-gas vehicles worldwide, primarily in Italy, Germany, Sweden and Brazil, but only about 120,000 in the United States. American bus fleets have adapted faster to natural-gas fuel, with nearly a quarter of new bus orders going to compressed natural gas.

      The Colorado market is poised for rapid growth, according to Clean Energy officials. The company is negotiating with fleet owners to add vehicles and filling stations, and there is now pressure on automakers like General Motors to start importing the natural-gas-ready trucks and cars they make for overseas buyers.

      For now, though, the options for most people wanting a new, natural- gas car are limited: Honda is the only automaker that builds a dedicated natural-gas car from the ground up, the CGX, for U.S. sale. But it's sold only by Honda dealers in California and New York.

      Buyers from states with more advanced natural-gas programs, meanwhile, flock to Colorado to snap up any converted autos they can find.

      "The biggest obstacle right now is that our two neighboring states are stealing all the best vehicles," said Wes Biggers, owner of the natural-gas conversion company FuelTek in Commerce City. Out-of-state owners looking to take advantage of cheap natural gas in their home state want to buy used Colorado vehicles at auctions or from private

      Biggers also argues that EPA restrictions make it far too expensive to test and certify natural gas-burning fuel conversion kits for every model of car.

      A gusher of tax incentives

      Tax credits and government help remain rich for those able to take advantage. The buyer of a new Honda CGX gets a $4,000 federal tax credit. Conversion of a pickup to natural gas can run $12,000, Biggers said, but the owner can claim $9,000 in Colorado tax credits to offset 75 percent of the cost. The problem for individual consumers, though, is they may not have a high enough tax burden to be able to use the full tax credit.

      "The barriers to entry are high," Biggers said. "Once you're in, it becomes very economical. I think consumers feel frustrated there's another fuel out there and they can't get access to it."

      Consumers who get their hands on a natural-gas Honda or other vehicle can buy the home-fueling station, called Phill, for about $3,000, with another $500 to $1,000 for installation and tapping into the home gas line. Buyers can qualify for a $1,000 federal tax credit, Orsulak said.

      Unlike a natural-gas pump at a station, the machines fill at a half-gallon per hour, requiring overnight use. But while a pump in the garage may be handy for someone on the way to work, it doesn't solve the problem of what to do if the tank gets low across town.

      The number of natural-gas fueling stations in Colorado hovers at 12, as Clean Energy Fuels, which took over the business from a former branch of the Xcel utility, has concentrated on servicing large fleets and heavy-duty vehicles like trash trucks and buses.

      A broad consumer market is unlikely to develop until more public and private fleets add enough natural-gas vehicles to support the building of more fueling stations, said Natalia Swalnick, coordinator of Colorado's Clean Cities program for the Department of Energy.

      "The EPA estimate of miles you can travel on a standard full tank is 170 miles; that's a decent amount of miles," Swalnick said. "But it may be tough to line that up with being close to a fueling station when you need it."

      Electric-car developers have a far more modest range in mind for a marketable vehicle, but they can also plug in anywhere for a recharge.

      New infrastructure's pricey

      Natural gas is not always the perfect solution its supporters make it out to be, some fleet managers say. The Regional Transportation District had to choose between natural gas and diesel for a major fleet overhaul a few years ago and chose diesel because older garages need renovations to handle gas. Repair shops need fire protection from compressed natural gas leaks, said RTD's general supervisor of maintenance, Dean Shaklee.

      The natural-gas engines RTD evaluated also weren't rated for use over 5,000 feet in elevation, Shaklee added. In years when the cost difference between natural gas and petroleum fuel is not as great, performance and the high price of new infrastructure decide the issue.

      Now, however, a truck running on natural gas instead of diesel can "put $20,000 back in the bank each year," Orsulak said. The city of Denver is seeking grants to run trash trucks that burn natural gas, he said.

      "The difference in price is the biggest it's ever been," Orsulak said.

      Trash fuels trash-haulers

      While market forces are once again pushing demand for vehicles, some members of Congress believe a government nudge can move natural gas out of its small niche. U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., recently announced a bill that would:

      • Mandate that automakers produce 10 percent of the new car fleet to run on natural gas by 2018.

      • Require all gas stations owned by the major oil producers to have at least one natural-gas pump.

      • Provide tax incentives of up to $90,000 for a gas station owner willing to install a natural-gas pump.

      • Offer new federal tax credits for consumers who convert their existing gasoline cars to natural gas, or who install a home-fueling station.

      "This proposal is a hat trick for America: It's good for our environment, good for our national security and good for drivers who are suffering at the pump," Emanuel said at a Chicago news conference.

      Emanuel and others argue that the United States already produces 98 percent of the natural gas it uses, with a long-term supply underground. That supply should be enough to keep a boom in natural-gas vehicles from affecting costs for home heating.

      Colorado is one of the largest resources for natural gas, with two major fields in southwestern and western portions of the state.

      Though much of it is piped elsewhere, Colorado prices could eventually benefit from cheaper transport and distribution costs if its natural gas could be used for in-state vehicles.

      Colorado would probably see more action, experts said, if natural gas were as cheap here as in Utah or Oklahoma. Oklahoma utility laws prohibit gas companies from making a profit on natural gas as a vehicle fuel, said Yvonne Anderson, coordinator of the Oklahoma Clean Cities program. The primary Oklahoma utility, Oklahoma Natural Gas, has been a strong advocate for fueling stations and creating bigger fleets, she said.

      Utah's price is cheap because the utility selling it there owns production from the well to the pump, he added. Clean Energy in Colorado buys gas from suppliers like Xcel and has to add on other costs and taxes.

      Natural gas is often thrown in with oil and gasoline as a fossil fuel, but in a way, it's renewable, Orsulak argues. Companies are working to commercialize methane gas created at landfills, hog farms and other sources.

      At landfills, fueling stations will gather methane from the rotting garbage and put it back into the tanks of the trucks that carried the garbage to the landfill.

      "The trash trucks quite literally power themselves," Orsulak said. "The trash-truck thing is a beautiful solution."

      Michael Booth: 303-954-1686 or [email protected]
      Jim Younkin