YOUNGSTOWN - The drive for more natural gas-powered vehicles is accelerating, but a seminar last week uncovered a few detours in the road.
"It's a really interesting idea. We were kind of excited about it, but my gut tells me it won't work for us," said John Hyden, executive director of facilities at Youngstown State University.
Hyden was one of about 50 who attended a seminar hosted by Warren based Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center and held at Youngstown State University to put vehicle fleet operators in contact with natural gas drillers and equipment makers.
Tribune Chronicle / Larry Ringler
John Hyden, right, head of Youngstown State University’s facilities department, talks with Bob Foust, safety director for locally-based Evets Electric, at YSU while inspecting a Chevrolet 2500 heavy-duty bi-fuel pickup truck that can burn either natural gas or gasoline.
The center, established to nurture new energy technologies, plans to hold more seminars in Salem on Wednesday and Warren on May 22.
Hyden said his roughly 73-vehicle fleet doesn't put on many miles at the campus. In addition, the average age of the fleet is 12-plus years, so there wouldn't be enough time to recoup the cost of converting vehicles to natural gas.
Costly ventilation requirements when fueling or storing natural gas vehicles indoors, along with compressor equipment, also are issues, he noted, saying, "We were caught a little off-guard. Nothing is insurmountable, but we hadn't built that into our original look."
Converting makes sense - a lot of cents - for some fleet operators.
Stark County on Friday plans to open Northeast Ohio's first compressed natural gas fueling station for its Stark Area Regional Transit Authority, or SARTA, bus system.
The station also will offer a place for private vehicles to "gas up" for $2.35 per gasoline gallon equivalent, SARTA chief Kirt Conrad said, adding the system buys natural gas off the New York Mercantile Exchange for about 90 cents.
Regular gasoline locally costs about $3.60 per gallon but approached $4 a gallon earlier this year.
Conrad said the system shelled out about $200,000 to upgrade the state's fifth largest public fleet but estimated savings will be $300,000 to $400,000 annually.
Buses will take 15 minutes to fill with gas coming from the station's four-inch natural gas line, and travel 200 to 300 miles between fill-ups, Conrad said.
The miles are comparable to previous performance, but the buses will emit significantly less carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and other air pollutants that contribute to smog and global warming.
Automakers are dipping their toes into the natural gas vehicle market. The Honda Civic is the only passenger vehicle dedicated to natural gas, but Ford Motor Co. is working with makers of natural gas conversion kits for its vehicles, while Chevrolet has started offering a bi-fuel 2500 heavy duty pickup truck that can burn either natural gas or gasoline. Dodge, meanwhile, is working to build natural gas trucks on its assembly lines.
Charlie Riedl, manager of Chesapeake Energy's natural gas vehicle market unit, said firetrucks and other heavy-duty trucks can be converted to compressed natural gas. He noted Smith Dairy in Orrville is in the process of converting six trucks.
Lack of public fueling stations limits the compressed natural gas market to fleet vehicles, which can be filled overnight at a central station, then return at the end of the day to be refueled.
Upfront costs - from $650,000 for a passenger vehicle station to $4.8 million for a large fleet station in Columbus - pose a major challenge to building the network needed to boost demand for natural gas vehicles.
Some costs also can be reduced. Jerrold Hutton, director of the Gaseous Fuels Transportation partnership in Columbus, noted pumps can be timed to fill fleet vehicles overnight, saving on the cost of drivers filling up their bus or truck.
Dave Mrowzinski, CNG program manager for IGS Energy near Columbus, noted larger pumps can fill four vehicles at once instead of one at a time, as with gasoline and diesel pumps.
Chesapeake's Riedl said large truck stops "are very engaged" in natural gas, with Flying J planning to open 10 stations.
He added Chesapeake expects by the end of May to announce a retailer to begin selling compressed natural gas to the public.
Natural gas' clean attributes extend beyond reduced air pollution; it also offers less pollution in the engine, leading to savings in maintenance.
Conrad said oil changes for SARTA natural gas buses can be done every 10,000 miles instead of 5,000 miles.
Liquidified natural gas, which turns to liquid at minus-260 degrees, is better suited to long-haul trucks. Riedl said LNG requires different tanks to keep it cold, but trucks that travel long distances generally will use it up before it warms.
Compressed natural gas is preferred for fleets that fuel overnight, he said.
Tom Bowman, a salesman with truck equipment maker Zoresko Equipment near Cleveland, showed a compressed natural gas equipped Ford 550 truck he drove to the YSU seminar.
The truck had two CNG tanks in a compartment behind the seats. As with traditional gasoline vehicles, the tanks are built to withstand collision, fire and other dangerous stuations.
Miles per gallon is comparable to gasoline, although it could be half-gallon to one gallon less, he said.
Beverly Osborne, a sales support manager for IMPCO Automotive in Union City, Ind., showed off the Chevrolet 2500 heavy duty pickup truck, which buyers could start ordering in April.
The truck is bi-fuel, meaning it runs either on a 17 gasoline gallon equivalent tank of compressed natural gas or a 36 gallon gasoline tank, giving it a range of 650-plus miles.
YSU's Hyden acknowledged cost savings may be the hook that attracts fleet operators, but he said it's actually second in his mind to the environmental benefits.
"It's green technology. That's of great interest to us," he said.