Communities explore natural gas vehicles

WARREN – Hoping to capitalize in some way on the growth of the natural gas and oil well industry in Ohio, some governments and businesses in Trumbull County are asking for a state grant to explore using compressed natural gas, or CNG, to fuel fleet vehicles.

If given by the Local Government Innovation Fund, the money would be used to also look at practical locations for a CNG filling station.

Officials say the advantages can be fuel cost savings and emission reductions, but the benefits can’t be realized if there is not a fuel station sensibly located because the value of spending money to convert their cars and trucks just isn’t there without one.

While that may be a concern now, the Chief Operating Officer of a company already planning to build a $2 million station in Girard says the Valley will not be overlooked as a potential location for more commercial natural gas filling stations.

Trumbull County Engineer Randy Smith, whose office is leading the grant effort, said $100,000 is being sought to do the review, which, so far, has the Engineers Office, County Commissioners, Newton Falls, Howland, Weathersfield, Dominion East Ohio Gas and Stanwade Tanks and Equipment partnering.

Letters have been sent to the other communities and to the Trumbull County Educational Service Center, to distribute to school districts, to gauge their interest in participating.

The application has been submitted to Ohio’s Development Services Agency. Awards should be announced in November.

The study would be on all vehicles, from passenger cars to heavy-duty trucks and look and look at retro-fitting engines with CNG conversion kits and purchasing new CNG-run vehicles from manufacturers, Smith said.

Included in the scope is the concept of a CNG fueling station, which requires a high pressure line for adequate service and the potential for gasoline infrastructure, Smith said. Property availability, highways and traffic would be part of the review.

”There is no purpose to install the equipment if we can’t purchase the fuel,” Smith said.

Jim Baich, COO of Dublin-based IGS energy CNG Services, is aware of the concern, calling it, “Range anxiety.”

“The average American drives 37 miles in a day,” Baich said recently when he was in Youngstown to take part in the Youngstown, Ohio, Utica Natural Gas, or Y.O.U.N.G., Conference and Expo at the Covelli Centre. That’s a lot of miles in a natural gas-fueled vehicle if a compressed natural gas filling station isn’t readily available.

His company, however, has committed to building one station a month in Ohio.

Baich declined to speak specifically about future Mahoning Valley locations because he said nothing is finalized, but he said he would expect to see the number of CNG filling stations grow more quickly in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

The first local station already is in the works, announced in June for Girard.

Baich said he realizes it may take a while for the company to recoup its $2 million investment to build the CNG fueling station planned for the Mr. Fuel truck stop and gas station on Salt Springs Road. The station, expected to support light-, medium- and heavy-duty CNG-fueled vehicles was announced in June, marking the beginning of the infrastructure necessary to support Ohio’s conversion to natural gas fueled vehicles.

The development cost is a risk Baich said he is willing to take.

“The return on that $2 million investment is going to take a while because we need the market to adapt, but we are putting our money where our mouth is and we are investing in Ohio and in West Virginia,” Baich said. “We think CNG stations are warranted in densely populated areas about every 30 miles. The number of CNG filling stations in Ohio has increased from three to 11 in the last year. In another year, he hopes to see that number increase to 20.

The wait may be worth it for local government.

A comparison of diesel and gasoline costs vehicles in the Engineer’s Office to the current cost of CNG shows the office would save about $147,000 a year on fuel, according to the grant application.

”When figuring out the remaining vehicles in the Engineer’s fleet, the County Commissioners fleets and the cars and trucks for each of the three community partners, the potential savings is substantial,” the application states.

Engine conversion kits, Smith said, run from about $5,000 for a passenger car to as much as $12,000 for a tractor trailer.

It’s estimated the payback with the cost of the kits is about 2.5 years.

Baich knows the argument is solid.

“We have fuel under our feet that is almost half as expensive, and it’s right under our feet,” Baich said. In addition, he argues it burns cleaner than gasoline.

David Rouan, Weathersfield administrator, said the township was interested in partnering because ”trustees are always interested in continuing improvement and doing things better, smarter and cheaper. The hope is once we get the grant, we’ll save some dollars in regard to fuel usage.”

Other advantages of CNG, Rouan said, are less wear and tear on the vehicles, it’s ”greener” and the township located near the planned natural gas fueling station at a Salt Springs Road truck stop, which is only a few minutes away from township offices.

The township has a fleet of about 40 vehicles.

Darlene St. George, administrator in Howland, said there is no loss for the township to participate in the grant application, which presents an opportunity to study something that could be beneficial.

”We’ve often talked about this,” St. George said. ”Is there a plus to do, is there a negative and if so, where.”

The township’s fleet is about 60 vehicles.