Local leaders fueling idea of compressed natural gas

A bus driver fuels up at a compressed natural gas station at DIA.

There could be a day in the not-too-distant future when the bus you ride to work or school, the truck that hauls away your garbage and the sweeper that clears your street will run on compressed natural gas rather than gasoline.

Several Grand Valley governments and public agencies are in the midst of discussions about converting dozens of vehicles in their fleets to run on cleaner energy.

The full conversion to CNG may not happen for several years, and it remains unclear how many public agencies will jump on board. But those facts haven’t dampened officials’ enthusiasm about the prospect of operating vehicles on a cleaner-burning resource developed right here in western Colorado.

“I’m really optimistic about it,” Mesa County Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said. “Obviously it’s not happening fast enough, but sometimes you just have to wrestle through it.”

Grand Junction is leading the way thus far in embracing the alternative energy source. It will receive four trash trucks this fall that run on CNG — totaling 40 percent of its trash-hauling fleet — and build a slow-fill station at the city shops complex off West Avenue.

Officials with the city and Mesa County think other vehicles such as dump trucks and street sweepers could run on CNG once their diesel-powered counterparts are due for replacement.

“There are pluses that we may not see the full benefit of immediately, but in the long run we’re seeing a way to really help stabilize our community in regard to how we maintain and operate our vehicles,” City Council member Bonnie Beckstein said.

Beckstein and Acquafresca are members of the Grand Valley Regional Transportation Committee, which will decide later this month whether to recommend to county commissioners that they buy two CNG buses for Grand Valley Transit’s 25-bus fleet.

Todd Hollenbeck, manager of the county’s Regional Transportation Planning Office, which oversees the operation of GVT, said a delay in bus manufacturing means the county will have to wait up to two years until it receives the buses, regardless of whether they’re CNG or diesel.

He said the two CNG buses would cost about $40,000 more than diesel buses.

But officials expect the difference in fuel prices to help make up for that up-front cost. Local governments would currently pay about $1.35 for an equivalent gallon of CNG, compared to $2.45 a gallon for diesel.

Two years ago, the city was paying more than $4 a gallon for diesel.

“Where we’ll see the biggest advantage is if we can consistently get good prices for natural gas,” Hollenbeck said. “As we see diesel costs start to creep up, that’s where we’re going to see the payback.”

While School District 51 embraces CNG vehicles in theory, putting them into practice may be more challenging because the district contracts with a private company, First Student, for bus service.

Private entities don’t qualify for the same rebates as public agencies, according to Dave Montoya, District 51 transportation director.

Montoya said the district plans to broach the subject with First Student when its five-year contract expires in 2012.

But he believes the firm, which operates roughly 150 school buses for the district, would have to see some return on its investment to buy into CNG.


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