It’s more economical, better for the environment and it powers motors more quietly than traditional fuels, so what’s not to like about compressed natural gas?
That’s the question that Eric Reip of the New Philadelphia area has been asking for years as he advocates use of CNG instead of gasoline and diesel fuel.
More people nationwide are beginning to share that idea. Ford Motor Co. said this week it sold a record 11,600 natural gas vehicles in its 2012 model year, more than triple the number it sold in 2010.
It’s the latest sign that natural gas is making inroads as a transportation fuel, particularly for truck fleets, buses and taxis. The consumer market is tougher to crack, but sales are gaining there as well.
Natural gas is cheap and plentiful in the U.S. after a spike in production that began in the middle of last decade. At the same time, the price of gasoline and diesel fuel has jumped more than 30 percent.
That makes natural gas — which also emits fewer greenhouse gases — an increasingly attractive option for truck companies and municipalities.
Natural gas also is developing as a key economic element in the Tuscarawas Valley region, where oil and natural gas explorations has been blossoming for the past two years. That could help keep prices lower, and potentially spur locating CNG stations in the region.
For 10 years, Reip has been driving a CNG-powered 1994 Dodge Caravan minivan. The vehicle was one of several models available from automobile manufacturers in that era. Others were a version of the Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Taurus and Toyota Camry, as well as the Ford F-150 pickup truck.
He said the only original equipment model currently being manufactured in the United States is a version of the Honda Civic.
Various models are being manufactured in Europe, “and I’m hoping that more of those will be imported and provide more choices for people buying passenger cars,” Reip said.
Reip said that Dodge and Chevrolet offer natural gas models, but they’re not an original equipment version on the assembly line. Instead, companies in Indiana and Kentucky are authorized to modify the vehicles, including fuel tanks and pressure regulators. For most vehicles, the intended CNG pressure is 3,600 pounds per square inch and is measured as gasoline or diesel gallon equivalent, GGE or DGE, he said.
The rule of thumb is that the miles-per-gallon ratio for a CNG-fueled vehicle is about two miles less per gallon than gasoline, he said.
Although he points out he’s paying the equivalent of $1.89 per gallon of gasoline, Reip has limited options in the region to purchase fuel. Typically, he buys from the fueling station in Canton for the Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. There’s a privately owned station in Coshocton. Smith Dairy in Orrville has installed its own compressed natural gas fueling station for the company’s vehicles. Several Giant Eagle Get Go stations sell CNG in the Pittsburgh area.
Because of the distance involved to obtain fuel, Reip added a reserve tank in the back of his minivan.
“Some people are concerned about the CNG tanks are reinforced fiberglass, but they’re safe,” he said.
To underscore the point, he said that if a gasoline tank ruptures, the gas goes to the ground and can explode. Natural gas would dissipate and evaporate into the atmosphere.
Reip said the Columbus suburb of Dublin has a large fleet of municipal services vehicles powered by CNG. He said Dublin schools are considering buying buses. Both fleets are parked near the city’s fuel station.
“The school districts in our area should consider the feasibility of CNG for their buses,” Reip said. “It wouldn’t produce the pollution that diesel fumes does, and it would be quieter and better for the environment.”
Kimble Recycling and Disposal company, headquartered off state Route 39 west of Dover, has 70 CNG-powered trash hauling trucks in its fleet of about 240 trucks. Those trucks operate from Kimble’s locations at 2295 Bolivar Road, Canton, and in Twinsburg, serving Stark, Portage and Summit counties. Kimble also has facilities in Carrollton and Cambridge.
“We’re hoping to expand this year or next year to Tuscarawas, Guernsey and Carroll counties,” said Keith Walker, director of operations for trash hauling for Kimble.
The company started by buying 35 new trucks in 2011 utilizing CNG, instead of diesel fuel.
“It’s working out really well for us,” Walker aid. “It’s a cleaner burning fuel, and residents of municipalities like that it’s only about one-tenth of the noise of diesel trucks.”
“We’re seeing quite a bit of savings in the cost of fuel,” he said.
He said CNG and diesel trucks are comparable in fuel efficiency, estimated below five miles per gallon.
The company paid the price available to the public from the SARTA station in Canton of $2.04.9 per gallon during January, he said. Gasoline and diesel prices hovered near $4 per gallon.
He said Kimble plans to eventually have all 240 of its trucks be CNG-powered. So far, it primarily has been replacing old trucks with new ones, although there’s a possibility of converting some of the diesel trucks.
In October, SARTA’s fleet of CNG-fueled vehicles was recognized as an Ohio Green Fleet by Clean Fuels Ohio’s statewide Ohio Green Fleets program. The program acknowledges outstanding fleet efficiency, environmental performance and service to the community by improving air quality and reducing Ohio’s dependence on imported petroleum.
SARTA had 23 CNG vehicles at the time. The transit authority also installed the first public natural gas fueling station in Stark County in May 2012 and anticipated that local businesses and residents using CNG will displace 400,000 barrels of imported oil with domestically produced natural gas annually.
The limited number of CNG stations in the region and higher cost to buy the vehicles hampers consumer interest. Nationally, CNG vehicle sales tally less than 1 percent of total vehicle sales.
While the vehicles must be special-ordered at some dealerships in Tuscarawas County, Parkway Honda in Dover has two available for immediate delivery, said owner Glenn Mears.
“We’ve had enough people express interest, and with a fuel station in Canton now, that I felt it was worth getting into,” Mears said. “This is the first year that we’ve had them on site. You have to have certified employees in sales and service. We sent a mechanic to California for a week of training to become certified to service these vehicles.”
Although there haven’t been any CNGs sold in the two months at the dealership, Mears said, “This broadens the variety of vehicles we have to offer people. We had one test-drive, but he bought a hybrid Civic instead.”
The 2012 Honda Civic CNG model has a manufactured suggested retail price of $27,095. By comparison, a gasoline engine four-door Civic LX with automatic transmission lists at $19,755.
“Currently, it costs about $14 to fill the tank, which should be good for up to 300 or 400 miles,” Mears said, adding that the CNG is estimated to save a driver $7,350 in fuel costs over a five-year period.
On top of that, Honda is offering a $3,000 fuel card incentive through April 30, he said.
General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group recently added natural gas pickup trucks to their lineups. Honda Motor Co. is seeing more interest in its natural gas Civic — with record U.S. sales of nearly 2,000 last year — and industry experts expect more offerings for regular buyers in the next year or two.
Natural-gas vehicles aren’t new. Ford’s previous peak sales, of 5,491, were in 2001. But they fell out of favor later that decade when the price of natural gas spiked. Ford stopped selling natural gas vehicles in 2004 and didn’t start making them again until 2009.
No one is quite sure how many natural-gas vehicles are on the road. GE, which is developing a home fueling station, estimates there are 250,000 natural-gas vehicles being used in the U.S.