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Fueling for the future

By: Victoria Lee Hall

Down near what Texans call the Third Coast sits a pretty, modern city of more than 27,000 residents. Lake Jackson has more than its fair share of new things: a new main fire station, a new City Hall, a new hospital and a new idea for powering their garbage collection fleet and other City vehicles: with natural gas.

Over the last eight years, under the guidance of Director of Public Works, Craig Nisbett, P.E., the city has purchased 14 new garbage trucks which run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG.) At first, the City refueled at a Centerpoint Energy refueling station in a nearby town.

Then a conversion and refueling station was built with one compressor to compress the natural gas – the same natural gas as most of us use in our furnaces - to CNG which takes up less space. But the City still purchased, at retail, the natural gas from Centerpoint.

This year, Lake Jackson signed a contract with the Texas General Land Office (TGLO) to purchase the natural gas wholesale thereby making the fleet even more efficient. Two more compressors have been added to the Refueling Center and one more garbage truck has been purchased to complete the fleet of 15.

TGLO “promotes the use of Alternative Fuels like natural gas for vehicular use, because of their benefit for the Texas economy and environment.” The two new compressors at $100,000 apiece came with a grant of $150,000 from the State Energy Conservation Department (SECO) to bring the actual cost down to $50,000 and each new garbage truck comes with an average $20,000 grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) bringing down the cost to around $180,000. (A diesel burning garbage truck costs about $150,000 with an additional $50,000 for the CNG version.)

Nisbett said the operation has passed the breakeven point and that the price of a “gasoline gallon equivalent” of CNG is about $1.20. This includes a 50 cent per gallon credit from the IRS, fuel costs, operating and maintenance costs but not the capital equipment costs which have been recaptured.

With a garbage truck fleet burning approximately 125,000 gallons a year the cost is about $150,000. But if Lake Jackson still had diesel garbage trucks, with diesel costing $2.45 a gallon there, the expense for their 15 vehicle garbage truck fleet fuel would be approximately $306,000. So the estimated savings for a year would be around $156,000 which is about one half of what it would cost to run a diesel fleet!

Nisbett pointed out an additional savings because maintenance is less for the CNG fleet. Cleaner burning means less wear and tear on engines. Not even as many oil changes are necessary although the Lake Jackson fleet still uses their old change schedule. And, less labor time is involved as refueling is done by a “slow fill method” at night when the trucks are sitting idle.

Lake Jackson owns 15 CNG pickups and five CNG Honda Civics which City officials drive. Nesbitt drove me to the refueling station in one of the Civics. I couldn’t tell any difference in power. He indicated that a regular engine can be converted to run on CNG and those engines have about a 20% loss in power but a CNG engine built by Honda, Cummings Westport, Crane or one of the other suppliers has the same power of a gasoline or diesel driven engine.

The fueling process is the same. The only difference came when Nisbett popped the trunk to show me the third fuel cylinder (two are mounted where normal gas tanks are.) That third cylinder takes up about ¾ of the trunk space of the Honda Civic.

In the pick-ups, the third tank is mounted under the tool boxes and there is no problem finding a place to put the tanks on the garbage truck.

As a police cruiser went by, I asked why not run the cruisers on CNG since there is no loss of power. The answer was that the trunks of police cars are full of video recorders, radar devices and other police equipment, not allowing for that third cylinder…a problem that seems solvable.

Nisbett spoke at a Compressed Natural Gas Vehicle Workshop last year, driving a CNG Honda Civic to Austin. He said he refueled while there in order to make it back home. Lake Jackson to Austin is about 200 miles. (Honda’s website states: “A full tank of natural gas supplies the GX with a driving range of approximately 170 miles.”) So, unlike current electric cars, CNG cars have a good range. But, if a normal vehicle had been driven 200 miles, more fuel would have been required to make it back as well.

In my efforts to learn more about vehicles powered by natural gas, I searched the Internet. The Natural Gas Vehicle Association website: NGVC.org, suggested by Nisbett, claims it is “the media source for information about all issues concerning the natural gas vehicle (NGV) market – in the U.S. and around the world.”  The site states: “The Civic GX is rated by the California Air Resources Board as meeting the very stringent AT-PZEV standard.”

What does that mean?
NGV’s can reduce exhaust emissions of:
Carbon monoxide (CO) by 70 percent.
Non-methane organic gas (NMOG) by 87 percent
Nitrogen oxides (NOx) by 87 percent
Carbon dioxide (CO2) by almost 20 percent below those of gasoline vehicles

The comparable reductions with diesel engines are 83% of NOx.

To further explain, “per unit of energy, natural gas contains less carbon than any other fossil fuel, and thus produces lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per vehicle mile traveled. While NGVs do emit methane, another principle greenhouse gas, any increase in methane emissions is more than offset by a substantial reduction in CO2 emissions compared to other fuels. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has conducted extensive analyses on this issue and it concludes that burning CNG produces about 68.0 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per mega joule (MJ) burned (this includes all methane emissions). Gasoline and diesel fueled engines produce approximately 94 – 95 grams of CO2 equivalent emissions per MJ.”

Nesbitt pointed out that CNG, unlike gasoline, dissipates into the atmosphere in the event of an accident. Gasoline pools on the ground creating a fire hazard.

The NGVC has a link to the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles which has a chart of countries and their numbers of NGV: http://www.iangv.org/tools-resources/statistics.html.

“There are over nine million NGVs on the road.  Every continent (except Antarctica) is seeing substantial NGV expansion.  Argentina is the world’s leader with over 1.5 million NGVs (20 percent of all Argentine vehicles).  Brazil, which is known as the world’s ethanol capital, has over 1 million NGVs.  Pakistan has over 1 million.”  The U.S. ranks only twelfth with only a little over 100,000 vehicles and just over 1,100 refueling stations.

Speaking of refueling and the only 1,100 refueling stations in the U.S.: the NGVC website mentions a natural gas compression system for individual use known as the Phill Home Refueling Appliance by The Fuelmaker Company.  The website states that Phill is typically hung on a garage wall and connects to your residential gas line. It fuels a vehicle via the slow fill method at your convenience, and then turns itself off. Jay Leno
has a website, “Jaylenosgarage”, on which there is a video demonstrating the Phill:

Nisbett agreed with a figure I found in my research. 95% of natural gas used in the U.S. comes from the U.S. and the remaining 5% comes from Canada.

Wouldn’t it be nice to not be dependent on foreign oil to drive to work, to go to the store, to pick up the kids? And spend half as much at the pump as well? Let’s face it, we are all going to continue to drive, why not drive down greenhouse gases and fuel prices and drive on fuel produced in America, all at the same time?

One Texas company that is forging ahead with the conversion is Dallas based EXCO Resources, Inc.. The company recently opened a new NATURAL GAS Filling Station in the Vernon field in Lincoln Parish, Louisiana. Field Manager, Ken Filardo and Board Member, Boone Pickens were on hand to open the station. Mr. Pickens’ Plan and efforts to lead the US out of historic dependence on imported crude oil for our transportation needs is given legs in this case.

Louisiana, with its new discovery of the Haynesville Shale (believed to be the fourth largest Natural Gas discovery in the world) now leads the Nation in supporting the conversion process. Louisiana’s legislature in the 2009 Session passed Tax Credit legislation which gives up to $3,000 toward the cost of vehicle conversions and up to 50% of the costs of installation of a CNG Filling Station.

As Boone Pickens says, “A fool with a plan can outdo a man with no plan any day.” Turning American habits is harder than turning an Aircraft Carrier, but with the State sponsored and Federal sponsored credits out there, we are starting to see the “turn.”

Congress is now working on a bill (The Nat-Gas Bill, SB 1408) to credit conversions of over-the-road trucks which are now powered by diesel and gasoline to CNG. This move will truly start the snowball rolling in a significant manner. Currently these vehicles, which haul freight we need for every facet of life in America, are the biggest single component of the transportation sector’s fuel budget. Conversion of this sector is “change we can believe in.”