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updated: 8/1/2011 6:21 AM

Suburban fleets switching to new fuel: Compressed natural gas

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  • Christopher Lyon, assistant to the manager of fleet services at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, fuels a van with compressed natural gas at the Blackwell Forest Preserve fueling station.

      Christopher Lyon, assistant to the manager of fleet services at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, fuels a van with compressed natural gas at the Blackwell Forest Preserve fueling station.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • A natural gas filling nozzle. CNG releases between 15 and 30 percent less greenhouse emissions, according to an Argonne National Laboratory emissions study.

      A natural gas filling nozzle. CNG releases between 15 and 30 percent less greenhouse emissions, according to an Argonne National Laboratory emissions study.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Natural gas fueling station in Warrenville

  • Natural gas filling stations

    Graphic: Natural gas filling stations (click image to open)


Compressed natural gas.

Could it be the superfuel of the future -- a solution to the nation's trauma about the price of gasoline and its impact on the environment?

CNG, as it's commonly called, costs about $2 a gallon less than gasoline. It's clean, burning up to 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline. And no need to worry about the politics of the Middle East for its supply -- an abundance of compressed natural gas exists in the U.S., readily available through the same pipelines that deliver it to homes and businesses.

While its mass use for cars is a ways off, compressed natural gas is being used increasingly by governments and private industry with fleets of vehicles.

"It's got a lot going for it," said Nels Olson, fleet services manager for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, which has used CNG since December 2008, when a specially designed fueling station opened at Blackwell Forest Preserve near Warrenville.

Four CNG stations in the North, Northwest and West suburbs are the beginning of the fueling infrastructure. They're joined by about 10 small, private stations such as one used to fuel service vehicles at Brookfield Zoo. As the fuel becomes more popular, four more large-scale stations are planned for fleets in Lombard, Downers Grove, Round Lake Park and Wheaton.

Economic benefit

This summer's spike in gas prices is reigniting an interest in fueling fleets with compressed natural gas. This wave of CNG use began in summer 2008, when gas prices soared and the nation's economy slumped into recession, said Tony Lindsay, with the Des Plaines-based Gas Technology Institute, a nonprofit that researches alternative fuels.

"If gas goes over $4 a gallon," he said, "the phones seem to start ringing a lot more."

CNG costs between $1.40 and $2.50 per gasoline gallon equivalent, depending on who owns the fueling station and whether taxes apply.

The fuel is measured in pounds per square inch, a measure of pressure. When a CNG tank is filled to 3,600 pounds per square inch, it provides about the same gas mileage as petroleum-based fuel, the Gas Technology Institute says.

CNG also releases between 15 and 30 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, according to an Argonne National Laboratory emissions study.

"There's really an environmental motivation to do the right thing," said John Gerger, manager of Waste Management's CNG station that opened this May in Wheeling. Waste Management pays about $2.50 for each gasoline gallon equivalent for its six CNG-fueled trucks, but governments, which are tax-exempt, get a better deal. They pay closer to $1.40 per gasoline gallon equivalent. That's a savings of more than $2 per gallon.

But to realize those savings, organizations must acquire vehicles that can be powered by CNG. They also must find or build a fueling station.

Granting conversions

For some groups, the costs of vehicle conversion and fueling station construction are offset by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, which gave roughly $15 million to several alternative fuel projects in the Chicago area.

Recipients include the village of Downers Grove, DuPage County, the DuPage forest district, Groot Industries, which has offices in Elk Grove Village and Round Lake Park, and Waste Management.

The forest preserve received $524,772, the bulk of which will fund a $372,772 fueling station in Churchill Woods Forest Preserve near Lombard, projected to open this fall. Other organizations with CNG-powered fleets can gain access to the station by making agreements with the forest preserve, but it won't be open to the public.

The remaining $152,000 will be used to covert 15 pickups and vans to run mainly on CNG. The district also expects its costs to be defrayed by a $4,000-per-vehicle rebate from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

The rebates are designed to encourage fleet managers to switch to alternative fuels, said Darwin Burkhart, clean air programs manager for the Illinois EPA. Since 1998 when the program began, 537 rebates have been awarded.

With the grant and rebates funding the upfront costs, forest preserve officials expect to reap the fuel savings right away.

Recovering costs

Without grants, a fueling station costs between $15,000 and $2.5 million, depending on the number of vehicles it's built to handle, Lindsay said. The stations require: a dryer to remove moisture from the gas; a compressor to compact it; storage tanks and pumps.

Converting vehicles isn't free, either, ranging from $8,000 to $12,000 depending on the type of vehicle and the size of fuel tank it needs.

Without grants or rebates, it would take slightly more than five years to cover the cost of conversion to realize fuel savings on a pickup truck that uses 800 gallons of gas a year.

And that's assuming conversion costs only $8,200 and a gasoline gallon equivalent of compressed natural gas remains $2 cheaper than a gallon of unleaded gasoline.

Without the grant DuPage County received, officials say converting vehicles and building a fueling station would not have been cost-effective.

The county got $150,000 for converting 15 vehicles and a contribution toward a $350,000 CNG station planned to open in Wheaton later this year, said John Kos, director of the DuPage County Department of Transportation.

"If it wasn't for the grant, we would be hard-pressed to show a savings in a reasonable amount of time," Kos said.

Waste Management received $830,000 in grants toward the $2.7 million Wheeling fueling station and the purchase of new trucks.

"It takes a while to make that transition because of the money involved in investing in the new trucks," said Gerger, the facility manager. "And you can't do it overnight."

Future projections

As CNG stations become more common, alternative fuel experts expect prices to remain low, as estimates now predict domestic sources of natural gas can meet the country's needs for about 200 years.

Groups such as the DuPage forest preserve believe the large supply should keep the price per gasoline gallon equivalent of CNG well below the price of unleaded gasoline.

"It seems like the fuel of the future because we have so much natural gas available," said D. "Dewey" Pierotti, the forest preserve's president. "Abundance should insure a reasonable price."

Lindsay, of the Gas Technology Institute, doesn't expect an increase in CNG-fueled vehicles to change the predictions.

"Even if we switch a large percentage of our transportation needs over to natural gas, it's still going to be a small percentage of the country's total need," he said.

But he does expect cooperation -- such as shared access to fueling stations under intergovernmental agreements.

"It's a pretty cooperative industry right now," Lindsay said. "Producers, transportation companies, fuel stations, owners and operators are all working together because they see the importance of this and they don't view each other as the competition; they view petroleum as the competition."