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updated: 7/31/2011 8:09 AM

Natural gas-powered cars not in immediate future

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Fleets of garbage trucks and forest preserve vehicles are switching to compressed natural gas, but that doesn't mean average suburban residents will be doing the same, alternative fuel experts say.

The main reason: CNG is most cost-effective when it's used by drivers who travel long distances every day and can afford expensive fueling infrastructure, said Darwin Burkhart, clean air programs manager for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's a niche fuel," Burkhart said. And for personal users, it may still be "a hard sell," he said.

Converting a vehicle to run on CNG costs between $8,000 and $12,000 with a $4,000 rebate available from the Illinois EPA. Purchasing a new CNG car can cost about $10,000 more than a new conventionally fueled car.

Honda sells a CNG-powered Civic for about $25,500, while a Civic that runs on unleaded gasoline starts about $15,800. A few other manufacturers sell CNG vehicles, but most models are pickup trucks or larger conversion vans meant for fleets, not personal use.

To drive a CNG vehicle, motorists can install an in-home fueling system that draws from the existing natural gas line and compresses the gas to the pressure necessary to fuel a car. Such systems sell for about $4,500.

The other option is to refuel at one of a few CNG stations open to the public and pay a higher rate than governmental users because of taxes and station operator profit, said Tony Lindsay with the Gas Technology Institute, a nonprofit that researches alternative fuels.

The institute's CNG station in Des Plaines is accessible to the public, but users must pay with a fuel purchasing card called a FuelMan card. Two CNG pumps at Chicago gas stations also are public, but at this point, they're used mainly by taxi drivers, Lindsay said.