City, users optimistic about natural gas filling station

Monday, September 1, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:32 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 2, 2014
A new natural gas station opened at 1900 Lake Ridgeway Drive in Columbia on Aug. 25. Clean Energy Fuel employees demonstrated how the new equipment worked last week while city employees practiced with the new pumps.

COLUMBIA — With a series of whooshes, compressed natural gas rushed into five high-pressure tanks in David Eggleston's white Dart Transit tractor trailer at Columbia's natural gas filling station, which opened last Monday.

The new filling station is part of a 15-year agreement between the city of Columbia and Clean Energy. The agreement calls for 15,000 gas-gallon equivalents of natural gas to be sold monthly among city and private vehicles, according to previous Missourian reporting.

Truck drivers from Dart Transit and Hogan Trucking have been using the station at 1900 Lake Ridgeway Drive, and other companies have expressed interest, said Eric Evans, fleet operations manager for the city. The station also will allow the city to diversify its fleet.

The city is ramping up the number of natural gas-powered vehicles in its fleet. Evans said the city already has five running full-time: two pickups in the Parks and Recreation Department, one truck in the Water and Light Department and two paratransit vans. City Manager Mike Matthes said in his proposed budget for fiscal 2015 that a total of 40 natural-gas vehicles will be on line by the end of this fiscal year, and the city plans to buy 14 more.

Natural gas-fueled vehicles come in all sizes. They cost more than their gasoline- and diesel-fueled counterparts because of the expense of installing compressed natural gas tanks and of converting the engine.

Evans said a one-ton pickup fueled by natural gas costs about $7,000 more than a conventional truck. The cost difference for larger vehicles such as buses is about $40,000.

Eggleston, of St. Louis, drives his tractor trailer between St. Louis and Kansas City. He said the fill-up is much cheaper with natural gas than with diesel fuel: $80 to $100 with natural gas compared to $500 to $600 with diesel. He has noticed less range, though. A full tank of natural gas will get him 500 to 550 miles, while a tank of diesel would take him 670 to 720 miles.

Nearly all of Dart Transit's St. Louis fleet of tractor trailers is powered by natural gas.

"My dad is the only one pretty much who still drives a diesel," Eggleston said.

The cost for a gas gallon equivalent — about 5.7 lb. of natural gas — is $1.90 for city vehicles and $1.99 for private vehicles.

Evans said the city feels the price of compressed natural gas "will remain stable" and will offset global and economic pressures that affect the price of gasoline and diesel. He said the natural gas is locally produced and there is a big future for this fuel.

"I think CNG stations will become as common as gas and diesel stations," Evans said.

The biggest fuel users in the city fleet are the most attractive options for natural gas. "We're primarily looking at heavy vehicles," Evans said.

The city considers efficiency in deciding which vehicles should use natural gas. Vehicles at the wastewater treatment plant, for example, are too far away from the natural gas filling station for efficient fill-ups.

Matthes said in his proposed budget that the city also plans to buy an electric van and charging station for the Water and Light Department. The city fleet also includes diesel trucks that run on a biodiesel fuel mixture, according to previous Missourian reporting.

The Environment and Energy Commission released a report on May 27 that recommended hybrid vehicles instead of natural gas-powered vehicles. The city proceeded with the agreement with Clean Energy. 

"We want a diverse-fueled fleet," Evans said.

Columbia's station is the only natural gas filling stop along Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis, according to the U.S. Department of Energy alternative fueling station locatorThe city is making sure the new station pops up on locator maps for computers and mobile devices, Evans said.  

Sam Easley, owner of Sam Easley Remodeling in Columbia, has been eagerly awaiting a compressed natural gas station in the city.

"I'm proud of the city of Columbia," Easley said. "We're pioneers in this."

Easley began searching the Internet for vehicles running on biodiesel fuel made from discarded grease from restaurants. He soon shifted his research toward cleaner-burning and more reliable natural gas vehicles, such as those manufactured by Westport WiNG Power System. The company makes bi-fuel (gasoline and natural gas) vehicles such as his 2012 Ford F-350.

Easley vividly remembers the initial conversation with Ryan Longenecker at Joe Machens Ford Truck Center:

"I threw him a check for $5,000. He said: 'We're not a Westport WiNG dealer.' I said: 'You are now.'"

Easley calls his $50,000 pickup a "free truck" because of the annual cost difference between filling up with natural gas and petroleum-based fuels. He said that his bi-fueled truck tows about 10 percent less weight when using natural gas, and the mileage is the same when he's not towing.

"I've saved a ton. Now I can fill up right here," Easley said. Before, he would have to fuel his truck at either a Clean Energy station in Lee's Summit or at Kansas Gas Service in Olathe, Kan.

There are other reasons to like natural gas, Easley said. He gestured toward his pickup's tailpipe, which was warm but odorless.

"That's clean," Easley said.

Natural gas is being produced from methane released by the city's landfill, Easley said. He feels that using natural gas supports clean energy, American jobs and American opportunities.

"Why pay for foreign oil when you can pay for American?" Easley said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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