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At $1.89 a gallon, converting cars to natural gas becomes more attractive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2011 - Richard Ockers admits it won't happen overnight, but he's hopeful nonetheless. "You can't just snap your fingers and convert an existing vehicle," he said. "At least not yet."

Standing next to Laclede Gas' compressed natural gas (CNG) pump, Ockers, a project engineer with the utility, knows the stumbling blocks to converting a car to natural gas, particularly the multi-thousand dollar price tag. But he's also quick to point out another price: $1.89 a gallon -- well below what the cars whizzing by on Shrewsbury Avenue are paying at the pumps they have to use.

Of course, there are a lot more of those pumps. That's the other problem. The facility Ockers uses is the only public CNG station in the St. Louis area.

"The manufacturers don't want to produce more vehicles in the natural gas option until there is fueling station availability," he said. "And no one wants to put in fueling stations unless there are users."

Today the Fleet, Tomorrow the World

Such infrastructure issues are coming increasingly to the fore in discussions over alternative energy. It's a topic that spawns both hope at the possibilities and frustration at the daunting logistical challenges. Cheaper, domestic and far cleaner burning than oil, CNG is just one of several possibilities for those looking at options outside the world of gasoline.

There are two key obstacles: the costs and limits of conversion and a lack of places to fuel up once you get switched over.

Ockers believes the latter is just a matter of CNG getting its foot in the door, largely with fleet vehicles, or company cars or trucks. Corporate owners likely can afford the cost of conversion, and their fleets would provide the growing demand needed for outlets to spring up. The bulk of Laclede's auto CNG customers are fleets, sometimes those traveling from out of town. Recently, the utility fueled 47 school buses headed to Kansas City from North Carolina, Ockers said.

"I think that's the model that will probably pan out as far as developing natural gas infrastructure," he said. "Get the fleets and companies first, then progress towards the public."

There's also evidence that the market may be expanding. Lambert-St. Louis International Airport currently is considering a potential CNG outlet that would be open to the public. Private natural gas facilities already exist at Lambert, primarily to fuel shuttle buses for nearby parking facilities.

"If you own and operate your own fueling station, your per gallon cost is even lower because what you are really paying for is associated with the compression," Ockers said. Costs under such circumstances could drop to around a dollar a gallon.

CNG is compressed to 3,600 psi, according to Ockers. The compression is necessary to pack enough fuel onboard to give the vehicle adequate range. The 3,600 figure is something of a happy medium. Lower pressures would reduce storage capacity and cut range. Higher compression would increase the amount of gas stored but would require thicker, more expensive tanks.

Ockers said oil became the preferred source of fuel in the early days of automobiles due to its wide availability and then low cost. The technological simplicity of producing gas engines added to its popularity. Also, oil has high energy density, which allowed for easier transport since less fuel could provide more energy.

There are ways CNG vehicle owners could fill up at home if they have a gas line to their garage and they buy the proper equipment. However fueling would take several hours since compression would have to be done onsite.

High cost of conversion

Upfront costs can be difficult to swallow. A fact sheet from NGVAmerica, a trade industry group promoting natural gas and hydrogen vehicles, estimates that converting a light-duty vehicle to CNG can run as much $12,000 to $18,000.

Ockers said part of the reason for high initial outlays is Environmental Protection Agency rule making. The EPA requires certification of every potential engine/chassis combination conversion kit. And then the kits have to be re-certified annually at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. The requirement both raises the cost and puts a practical limit on the number of possible conversion combinations.

"Because (the EPA) took such a beating, they finally, as of this month, released updated rulemaking for conversion systems," Ockers said.

The result is a three-tiered process based on the age of the car. It loosens some of the agency's mandates, he said. Ockers said the move is likely to open up possibilities for a larger scale movement to natural gas. He also hopes tax incentives contained in pending legislation will eventually be passed as part of the NAT GAS Act currently under consideration by Congress.

"It's probably going to take a few more years for additional conversion kits to become available," he said. "It's going to be based on demand."

In the United States, CNG vehicles are largely created as conversions though Honda has been offering its CNG Civic GX as an off-the-lot option for over a decade. With a manufacturer's suggested retail price of over $25,000 it runs nearly $7,000 above its gas-powered alternative, the LX. Availability is still limited. The closest dealership to carry the vehicles is in Kansas City, according to Honda. Meanwhile, GM has rolled out CNG fleet vans for the 2011 model year.

Conversions tend to focus heavily on trucks and SUVs. NaturalDrive, one EPA-certified provider, does offer conversions of the Chevrolet Impala, however. NaturalDrive estimates about 9 million vehicles run off natural gas worldwide, 150,000 of them in the United States.

Maintenance Issues For Public Transit

For better than a decade, Metro's stock of more than 400 buses contained 36 CNG vehicles. But that era ended -- at least for now -- in 2009 when cost reductions meant the aging buses were retired without replacement. The remaining fleet is all low-sulfur diesel.

"We didn't really drop the program," said Ray Friem, chief operating officer for transit. "It just kind of timed out and because of our economic issues we were canceling all bus orders."

Friem said Metro still has a CNG fueling facility and they would consider all options when it comes time to buy new vehicles. But he said natural gas vehicles presented more maintenance and range issues.

"There are absolute performance requirements they have to achieve before we would accept a different technology into the fleet," he said.

Ockers said he thinks concerns over maintenance may have been a result of the age of the buses.

"It's like looking at a 15-year-old car and saying 'My goodness, that technology requires more maintenance than a car today,'" he said.

Kevin Herdler, director of St. Louis Regional Clean Cities, which works with government entities on issues related to alternative fuel infrastructure, said St. Louis has about 200 natural gas vehicles.

"It's one of the cleanest fuels out there when it comes to air quality," he said. "We also have an abundance of natural gas. It's a very safe product."

Some School Districts Use Propane

Propane is another option. Herdler said a refit for propane presents a lower upfront cost for the conversion, which he estimates at about $4,000. However, he notes, the fuel itself is a bit more expensive. Both are clean burning.

"It's doing well in school districts and some fleets are taking a look at it," Herdler said. "Even though it's not as strong yet, it will be. We are putting in 10 public fueling stations over the next year and the propane market is really going hard after the school districts and service fleets."

Propane already has a few outlets in the area, largely thanks to a national effort by U-Haul, which over the past year and a half has opened more than a thousand public propane-fueling stations nationwide, including nine in the St. Louis area. J.P. White, propane program manager for U-Haul International, said that the company has even launched a website to let travelers know where their propane locations are and what the price is at any given time.

Business, he said, is up.

"We've seen a better than 15 or 20 percent increase this year alone," said White. "It's starting to get real busy."

He said other nations, including, Australia, Japan and parts of Asia are already focusing on propane.

"The Dominican Republic runs on 60 percent propane vehicles," he said. "It can be done. We just have to make the decision to do it. The conversions aren't that expensive. There's a lot of government funding to try and help us to do that too."

Interestingly, the NAT GAS Act, beloved by CNG backers, has drawn fire from the propane industry, which says it offers tax breaks for CNG, but leaves their fuel out in the cold.

Currently, the local market isn't particularly crowded. Tony Wallach of Valley Park-based Geldbach Petroleum Co., offers propane auto gas yet he's had only two semi-regular customers who use it.

Wallach estimates propane is about 30 percent cheaper than present gasoline prices, which are elevated due to increased demand for fuel and instability in the Middle East.

"Going forward, I think you will see more because there's a big push on the 'go green' concept and reducing carbon footprint," he said. "How quick it spikes I can't answer, but you are going to see a lot more interest than in the past."

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.