Columbia considers natural gas to fuel city, private vehicles

Monday, April 23, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
Josh Flowers fills up a shuttle bus with compressed natural gas in the Super Park parking lot at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport on Feb. 2. Super Park fills 37 shuttles with compressed natural gas twice a day. The city of Columbia is considering new garbage trucks powered by natural gas, a purchase that would lead to construction of a station that sells the alternative fuel. It would be the only such station between Kansas City and St. Louis.

COLUMBIA — The city is considering purchasing a fleet of new garbage trucks powered by natural gas that would lead to the construction of an alternative fuel station in Columbia.

The station would provide a place for city and private vehicles to refuel with compressed natural gas, a fossil fuel substitute that costs less than diesel and gasoline. Natural gas is increasingly being used as a transport fuel throughout the country, said Eric Evans, the city's fleet operations manager.


  • Compressed natural gas vehicles produce less exhaust and greenhouse gas emissions, including 90 percent less carbon monoxide and 25 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline vehicles.
  • The price of compressed natural gas fluctuates less frequently than gasoline, and generally costs one-third less than gasoline or diesel, which means about $2.60 for diesel's current price of $4 in Columbia.
  • Natural gas vehicles can cost between $3,500 and $6,000 more than gasoline-powered vehicles, and require more frequent refueling.

Source: EPA Fact Sheet

Evans said the project is "somewhat contingent, but not 100 percent dependent" on the purchase of 10 to 12 new garbage trucks, which would replace a portion of the city's diesel-powered fleet.

California-based Clean Energy Fuels, the largest seller of compressed natural gas in North America, proposed the station to the City Council in February. Clean Energy would pay for the construction of the station, and the city would pay for the natural gas it uses as well as the cost of keeping the fuel pressurized, Evans said.

Evans said that even with this compression fee, compressed natural gas is cheaper than diesel. Natural gas is being used in other cities' fleets as fuel for large vehicles, such as buses, as well as for private vehicles.

Without a fleet of vehicles, like garbage trucks, powered by compressed natural gas, the city would not be consuming enough of the fuel to take advantage of its low cost compared to diesel, and Clean Energy would not be able to recoup its investment, Evans said.

A new large garbage truck powered by natural gas generally costs between $38,000 and $40,000 more than a diesel-powered truck of the same type, Evans said. Because natural gas costs much less than diesel, however, the city would recoup the extra cost within four years, he said.

If the station is built, Evans said that when the city needs to replace vehicles in the future, an effort will be made to purchase replacements as natural gas rather than diesel or gasoline-powered models.

Richard Wieman, manager of the city's Solid Waste Division, said that buying garbage trucks that run on natural gas would be a cost savings and better for the environment, as compressed natural gas is cleaner than diesel.

"The city is always looking for opportunities to improve worker safety and be more efficient," he said.

The new garbage trucks would be side-loading, Wieman said, which use a claw-like device to pick up trash containers. This method would be more efficient than the trucks the city currently uses, which require workers to manually collect garbage off the curb and put it in the truck, he said.

Other advantages to these trucks would be fewer chances for worker injuries, and the ability for the trucks to operate in any weather, Wieman said. It would require the purchase of garbage bins for residential use, he said.

The natural gas station, which Evans said would likely be built near U.S. 63 and Interstate 70, would be the only such station between Kansas City and St. Louis and would create a "compressed natural gas corridor" between the two cities, where Clean Energy also operates stations.

Both the deal with Clean Energy and the decision to purchase new garbage trucks could happen sometime within the next 60 to 90 days, Evans said.

If the station is built, the city would also seek other potential natural gas users, such as other city fleets and companies like UPS, which is a "big compressed natural gas user," Evans said.

Due to an increase in mining and an abundance of the resource, natural gas prices are at a 10-year low, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Consequently, vehicles powered by natural gas are becoming popular alternatives to gasoline and diesel vehicles throughout the country.

In 2011 there were more than 112,000 compressed natural gas-powered vehicles in the United States and about 500 stations open to the public, according to Natural Gas Vehicles for America, an organization that advocates use of the fuel.

Evans said that even Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Dodge are developing trucks powered by natural gas.

"In my opinion, compressed natural gas will soon be as available nationwide as gasoline," he said.

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Richard Saunders April 23, 2012 | 11:48 a.m.

It's better for the local environment, but if you are lucky enough to live where they can frack the ground under your feet, well, then you might reconsider.

Besides, we've still got a few inches of topsoil to burn off in the form of ethanol before we go all stupid below the surface.

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