More options in La Crosse area to buy compressed natural gas at the pumpAs petroleum prices spike, so does interest in vehicles that run on natural gas, a cheaper fuel that's cleaner burning, abundant -- and home grown.
By: By Chris Hubbuch, La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Superior Telegram
The last time gasoline was close to $4 a gallon, Kory Bessinger's fuel budget was $500 a month for his home-based service business.
This time around, it's $200. The reason? Natural gas.
Each night Bessinger hooks up his Honda Civic and Chevy Cavalier to a compressor near his Onalaska driveway. Come morning, they're good to go for about 200 miles on tanks full of compressed natural gas that costs him about 80 cents for the equivalent of a gallon of gas.
The cars cost a little more than conventional models, and his compressor set him back about $9,000 after the federal tax rebates, but Bessinger, 41, figures he'll earn it back in fuel savings.
And while natural gas is a much cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline -- emitting less carbon dioxide and practically none of the other pollution -- that wasn't his motivation.
"For me it was definitely bottom line," Bessinger said. "If I can be cleaner and greener, that's fine. But I'm not going to go out of my way to do it."
Bessinger isn't the only one looking at this alternative fuel.
As petroleum prices spike, so does interest in vehicles that run on natural gas, a cheaper fuel that's cleaner burning, abundant -- and home grown. And with big players like Kwik Trip entering the game, the market is poised for growth, especially with diesel at $4 a gallon and gasoline possibly headed for $5.
"As gas prices go up, our phones continue to ring," said Lorrie Lisek, executive director of Wisconsin Clean Cities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing petroleum use. "We are getting interest from everywhere."
She's hearing mostly from commercial interests and small businesses looking to the bottom line.
"Everyone's looking to save energy," Lisek said. "Fuel is one of their biggest costs right now."
CNG vehicles -- which have internal combustion engines similar to conventional gas and diesel models that run on compressed or liquefied natural gas -- have been around for decades. Measured in terms of vehicles, natural gas accounts for a tiny fragment of the U.S. fleet.
But in terms of fuel use, it's a rapidly growing share.
The national trade organization NGVAmerica estimates fuel consumption has grown by about 15 percent a year since 2006 -- even through the recession.
That's being driven by the rapidly expanding market for natural gas-powered heavy-duty trucks, which consume far more fuel than the passenger and light-duty vehicles that previously dominated fleets, said Stephe Yborra, marketing director for NGVAmerica.
Garbage trucks -- which use a lot of fuel, follow preset routes and return to a home base -- are one of the fastest growing segments of the market. Yborra points to Waste Management, which now has a thousand CNG-fueled trucks on the road, the nation's largest CNG fleet.
"Major accounts have seen the writing on the wall," Yborra said.
Charlie Britten has seen it locally at River States Truck and Trailer, where he's the new truck sales manager.
He recently filled an order from Kwik Trip for three CNG trucks and has fielded requests for garbage trucks, semi rigs, flatbeds and refrigerator trucks.
"There's a buzz out there I've never seen," Britten said.
The vehicles aren't cheap. A four-door CNG Civic sells for about $2,000 more than a comparable hybrid and more than $5,500 above a standard fuel Civic, and a heavy-duty CNG truck carries about a $40,000 premium.
But Britten points out that driving that truck 100,000 miles a year, the owner would recoup the extra cost in about two. High-mileage passenger cars can pay off even sooner.
Abundant domestic fuel
Looking forward, industry experts predict natural gas prices will remain stable even as petroleum increases thanks to an estimated 100-plus-year supply that can't be easily shipped overseas.
That's partly due to abundant supplies of natural gas under U.S. soils, said Peter Taglia, an environmental geologist working as a contractor for the Wisconsin State Energy Office.
The development of a horizontal drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing has opened up vast new reserves of the gas and is also the reason for the rapid expansion of another western Wisconsin industry: sand mining. (The fine-grained silica particles found in the area's hills are used to tap those shale deposits deep underground in places like Pennsylvania, Texas and the northwest.)
Unlike oil, which is a globally traded commodity susceptible to regional disruptions, price speculation and demand in developing countries like China and India, natural gas is expensive to export -- making it cheaper than oil.
CNG vehicles can also run on so-called bio-fuel -- methane gas captured from manure, food waste, sewage or landfills.
Honda Motorwerks president Chris Schneider has sold dozens of CNG vehicles. He's been driving one for the past five years, singing the praises of home-grown fuel.
Schneider points to the two countries with the largest and fastest growing CNG fleets: Pakistan and Iran. If oil-producing nations are doing it, he figures we ought to take note.
Despite its lower emissions and smaller carbon footprint, natural gas hasn't exactly been embraced by environmental advocacy groups.
The Sierra Club has attacked the natural gas industry for exploiting loopholes it says allow drillers to ignore environmental and health protections in the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts. In particular, the Sierra Club has called for tighter regulation of hydraulic facture drilling.
"Our position is basically natural gas is much cleaner than gasoline, so we support that," said Elizabeth Ward, conservation programs coordinator for the Sierra Club's John Muir chapter. "But we're still concerned about what it means for fracking."
Despite the abundance of fuel, the problem for CNG vehicle owners has been finding places that sell it in compressed form.
There are stations around Milwaukee -- as in many large cities with air quality problems -- but until recently drivers in western Wisconsin have been largely limited to fueling up with home appliances like the one Bessinger uses.
That's starting to change.
In March, U.S. Oil opened a CNG fueling station in Menomonie, Wis., to serve trucks hauling Anderson Windows and other traffic along the Interstate 90/94 corridor.
Later this month, Kwik Trip will bring CNG to two La Crosse locations, including a first-of-its-kind alternative fuel station near company headquarters in the industrial park and the store at Cass and Fifth streets. The company plans to bring CNG to stations in Rochester, Minn., and Sturtevant, Wis., later this year.
The nozzles are a little different, but the pumps take credit cards and offer the same "under-the-canopy" experience as any convenience store, said Ruanna Hayes, alternative fuels specialist for Kwik Trip.
"We're looking for convenience," Hayes said. "Something that's not outside of your comfort zone."
Bryan Nudelbacher is a business analyst for U.S. Oil. He says the reason is very simple.
"We see natural gas as a threat to our diesel business," he said. "We want to keep our customers as they convert their fleets."
'A game changer'
Kwik Trip isn't just planning to sell CNG. The company has ordered 20 natural gas vehicles -- from cars to semis -- and plans to add about 20 more each year to its 600 vehicle fleet.
Future offerings will also include vehicle conversions and emergency roadside fuel service.
Industry experts say this kind of investment will fuel exponential growth in the natural gas vehicle market. More prevalent fuel stations will open up new opportunities for truck fleets covering more ground as well as CNG drivers in search of adventure.
Schneider has a map of the United States with pink paper cutouts over the sections that he can't currently travel in a natural gas vehicle. White circles representing a 250-mile radius around seven new Clean Energy stations expected to come online this year will eliminate most of those pink zones.
Still, Schneider puts more time and energy into planning his trips than most drivers.
He calls Kwik Trip's entry into the market "a game changer."
It's also part of what leads NVGAmerica to predict that CNG vehicle sales is just approaching the hockey stick curve of growth.
Standing on its own?
Federal tax credits and other incentives -- for CNG vehicles and home appliances like the one Bessinger bought -- expired at the end of 2011, but that doesn't seem to have dampened enthusiasm for the technology.
"The higher gas prices will drive the alternatives," Lisek said.
Still, Gov. Scott Walker's administration has been a supporter of the fuel, distributing about $8.4 million in federal funds through the State Energy Office for infrastructure and vehicles.
"Whether it is traditional natural gas or biogas, from an environmental and cost perspective we believe this alternative transportation fuel is important," Christopher Schoenherr, deputy secretary of the Department of Administration, said in an email. "Wisconsin is a manufacturing state, so our ability to transport the products Wisconsin companies make to the marketplace using CNG will provide us with a clean, green competitive advantage."
Chad Hollett, director of Kwik Trip's distribution division, said despite a small state grant for the new alternative fuel station, the company's investment in natural gas is based on market economics.
"We feel strongly it can stand on its own," he said. "We're doing it because it makes sense."
(c)2012 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.)
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