Going natural, in the face of rising gas prices

Tim Barker, fleet supervisor for the city of Grand Junction, shows off the new compressed natural gas filling station the city is installing at a site along Riverside Parkway west of the city shops. New city trash trucks will use a slow-fill pump for refueling overnight. The public will use a fast-fill pump for fill-up with a swipe of a credit card, like at a gasoline station.

The surge of gasoline prices above the $3-a-gallon barrier not only revives the grumbling by motorists as they swipe their credit card at the filling station. It also renews calls for boosting use of alternative fuels such as compressed natural gas.

The average motorist can expect to shell out thousands of dollars to convert gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles so they can run on compressed natural gas, or CNG.

Yet advocates are banking on the fact that CNG is cheaper and burns cleaner, and on the lure of tax credits for conversion. They also point to the impending opening of the first public CNG station in western Colorado, which would expand what to this point has been a limited market for CNG vehicles in the United States.

“As soon as that station opens in Grand Junction, there will be people who want to go out and buy a Honda Civic GX or convert their vehicle to CNG,” said Denise McCourt, spokeswoman for Natural Gas Vehicles for America, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization that represents more than 100 companies that promote, produce and use natural gas as a transportation fuel.

The cost to retrofit a diesel or gasoline vehicle to run on CNG alone or both CNG and fuel ranges from $12,000 to $18,000, depending upon the size of the vehicle, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America. Honda, which currently manufactures the only CNG-powered passenger car in the form of a Civic GX, lists a $10,000 price difference between the traditional Civic and the more expensive GX.

Of the 12 million CNG vehicles on the road today, only 110,000 of them are in the U.S., largely because of the stringent Environmental Protection Agency mandates, according to McCourt. The EPA requires the manufacturers of aftermarket emissions systems to certify that they meet emissions standards. Violators of that requirement can face hefty fines.

“You just can’t go out on the Internet and buy some kind of thing and go to your garage and convert your car,” she said.

The price tag associated with the conversion system and meeting federal requirements may scare off a lot of people. But CNG advocates hope motorists will be enticed by a host of benefits.

Compared to gasoline, CNG emits 20 to 30 percent less carbon dioxide, 50 to 75 percent less nonmethane organic gas, 70 to 90 percent less carbon monoxide and 75 to 95 percent less nitrogen oxides, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America. It has about the same fuel efficiency as gas but less than diesel.

In the current economy, financial advantages may be at the top of the list of many prospective CNG investors.

Colorado residents can receive up to a 75 percent tax credit on the cost of converting a vehicle to CNG. The federal government offers up to a $1,000 tax credit for apparatus that allows for refueling at home.

As gasoline approaches its highest price since the eye-popping, $4-a-gallon days of the summer of 2008, the gallon equivalent of CNG is selling for as little as one-third of the price in some places in the West. CNG is priced at $2.15 at most CNG stations on the Front Range, according to CNGPrices.com.

CNG also is attractive because it’s abundant on the Western Slope and is a domestic fuel source that, unlike oil, isn’t subject to happenings halfway across the globe.

“Energy security and domestic jobs and the domestic economy are the really big driving factors,” McCourt said. “Is there something we can do so that we are not so beholden to worldwide events?”


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