Automotive and Gas Prices and Fuel and Alternative fuels and Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

Compressed natural gas for cars shows signs of catching on

October 29, 2011

To a hip generation of car buyers grooving to the electric oscillations of the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, compressed-natural-gas-powered vehicles have all the appeal of a polka ballad.

CNG is relegated to powering fleet vehicles such as those of AT&T Indiana and Citizens Gas. They’re retrofitted with frightful tanks charged to 3,000 psi that could propel one to suborbital flight.

goldstein-adam-mug.jpg Goldstein

But CNG may soon make a bigger whoosh and generate more cash for local firms specializing in the fuel.

For one, Honda Motor Co. has begun producing in Greensburg a CNG version of the ubiquitous Honda Civic, with a sticker price just north of $26,000.

General Motors Corp., meanwhile, already offers on new car lots versions of its full-size vans, which it sends to a plant in Union City for CNG conversion.

Also fueling the trend are recent reports indicating North America has larger reserves of natural gas than previously thought. Not only that, the stuff is renewable; an arm of Fair Oaks Farms, in northern Indiana, plans to build a facility that converts cattle waste into methane and then into CNG, to power dairy trucks.

But most compelling might be CNG’s price relative to gasoline these days.

Adam Goldstein steered a Ford F-150 into a station at Indiana Geothermal, 4355 Lafayette Blvd. He clamped on the CNG hose to the truck and watched the digit counter rise.

For $15.97, Goldstein bought the equivalent of 8.63 gallons of gasoline that would have cost him $29.77.

In other words, the CNG was selling for the equivalent of $1.85 per gallon of gasoline.

“The actual cost of driving your vehicle is really half that of gasoline,” said Goldstein, who recently launched Elwood-based Indy CNG.

He’ll convert most any vehicle, using off-the-shelf parts. The cost now is about $3,000, although Goldstein expects that price to drop as he develops standardized kits for particular models.

The F-150, which still runs on its standard gasoline tank at the flip of a dashboard switch, belongs to a customer who is building an environmentally friendly house.

Many of the CNG conversions in the Indianapolis area over the last 20-odd years have been done by Greene’s Auto and Truck Service, 111 W. Raymond St., said Kellie Walsh, executive director of Greater Indiana Clean Cities Coalition. The federally funded program promotes alternatively fueled vehicles.

Clean Cities recently lassoed a $10 million federal grant for alternative fuel projects in Indiana, including the conversion of 19 state-owned dump trucks.

As of 2008, Indiana counted 2,007 CNG vehicles in government and private fleets, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But some see growth ahead.

Lubs Technologies, 7015 Brookville Road, has been supplying compressors for various industrial uses for decades. Last year, President Doug Lubs started another firm, CNG Source Inc., to specialize in compressors used in refueling applications.

He rattles off customers around the state for which CNG Source has installed fueling stations.

“Before, it was hit or miss. There wasn’t a lot going on” with CNG, Lubs said.

He’ll even sell and install a home fueling station that taps one’s existing natural gas supply line and squeezes the gas for use in a CNG vehicle. The home units he sells, which have earned the blessings of Honda, cost a pricey $4,500 at the moment. The upside is that using one’s own gas from home could be much less expensive than what it sells for at the three public CNG filling stations in the area.

Goldstein hopes small businesses and consumers will warm to having their vehicles converted. The Environmental Protection Agency recently loosened some of its regulations regarding modifications to vehicle emission systems.

The older the vehicle, the less paperwork or certification required. The F-150 Goldstein just finished has more than 150,000 miles on the odometer. He mounted two, five-gallon tanks to the pickup bed. A regulator and computer controls fit under the hood.

As for safety concerns, proponents note that the fuel has been used safely in vehicles for years, in part because the tanks that house the gas are made of high-strength materials. Natural gas also tends to quickly disperse in the event of tank rupture.•

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