Natural gas for vehicles comes to Boise and Nampa
With automakers planning to offer more vehicles that burn a fuel that saves consumers about $2 a gallon, a series of compressed natural gas stations could help reduce air pollution and help the nation break its addiction to foreign oil, supporters say.
But before regular consumers are ready to spend the $3,000 to $6,000 extra for cars that burn the fuel, the network of fueling stations has to reach critical mass.
That hasn’t stopped Allied Waste Services from converting its heavy-duty truck fleet to natural gas in the Treasure Valley.
“It’s clean, it’s domestic and it’s quiet,” said Dave Fisher, Allied general manager.
Their efforts, partnering with the Treasure Valley Clean Cities Coalition, are moving the region toward the goal of more available natural gas. The Boise station is located at Allied Waste’s headquarters at 11101 W. Executive Drive.
The company operates a second station in Nampa at 3015 E. Comstock Ave. — and it, too, is being opened to the public. A ceremony is planned for Monday.
Allied decided to convert to compressed natural gas in 2008, mostly because of concerns over new diesel regulations, said Fisher. Its conversion was well under way when the Clean Cities Coalition came to the company in 2009 asking if it wanted to become partners in a grant application to the Department of Energy for federal stimulus dollars.
Today, all 50 Allied Waste trucks are fueled by compressed natural gas, and its parent corporation plans to converts its entire fleet of 1,000 because of the local success, Fisher said.
“If you’ve got a hub-and- spoke kind of operation, it makes all sorts of sense,” Fisher said.
ValleyRide, the Treasure Valley’s regional transit system, already uses the fuel, too. The Boise Fire Department and other entities are considering conversion, said Beth Baird, Boise’s air quality program coordinator and the head of the Treasure Valley Clean Cities Coalition.
WHEN CAN YOU GET A NATURAL GAS CAR?
General Motors and Ford both manufacture compressed natural gas vehicles for fleet use. But only Honda has brought a consumer option to market in the United States. In Europe, car buyers can choose from more than a dozen models.
The 2012 Honda Civic GX, with a starting price of $25,490, is nearly $10,000 more than a gasoline-powered Honda (and, according to the company, gets 24 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway). But its sales are expected to expand. Conversions are available, as are bi-fuel vehicles, which use both gasoline and compressed natural gas.
“As prices of vehicles come down, it can become very viable for the individual,” Baird said.
But the real issue is the development of a national network of fueling stations. Since 2008, former Texas oilman and current natural gas crusader T. Boone Pickens has pushed for federal legislation that would provide tax credits to help people and businesses buy vehicles — and help businesses set up fueling stations.
The nation had 893 compressed natural gas stations in 2010, the Department of Energy said. And while natural gas provides a quarter of the nation’s energy, only 1 percent is used for transportation.
Compressed natural gas is sold in gasoline gallon equivalents. The tanks hold less fuel than gasoline tanks since natural gas takes up more volume.
The two Idaho natural gas stations fill in a critical hole for the national network. The Seattle area has a significant number of compressed natural gas autos and its own network of stations. So does Utah.
But with drivers having to fill up every 150 miles, long-range travel was difficult. Even now, stations are needed in the Magic Valley and across Oregon and Washington.
THE MODEL: UTAH
Since 1986, Questar, the natural gas utility for the Beehive State, has converted much of its fleet of vehicles to natural gas. From the start, it made its refueling stations open to the public. Today it has 74 stations around the state with 10 more coming in the near future.
“We don’t have to haul it from anywhere else because natural gas is abundant here,” said Robin Erickson of the Utah Clean Cities Coalition.
The coalition has worked with Questar and a series of governors on expanding the network and making it easier for businesses and consumers to convert with tax credits.
“Utah is very frugal with its money,” Erickson said. “They have supported the incentives because they want to save taxpayers’ money.”
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates Utah has about 10 times more compressed natural gas vehicles in use than Idaho does.
Natural gas utilities have been required since 1996 to use their alternative fuel when possible. But the options for vehicles have dropped since the late 1990s.
Intermountain Gas Co. has converted portions of its fleet to natural gas. But it has not made its fueling stations available to the public because it would have to justify the expense of public stations to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission since all of its customers would have to pay.
“We thought that any public fueling system would have to stand on its own,” said Byron Defenbach, an Intermountain Gas spokesman.
It prefers to sell its natural gas to retailers who would shoulder the cost of a compressor and run it like a regular gasoline station.
Idaho hasn’t had compressed natural gas stations previously because it offers none of the incentives Utah, Oregon or California offer, Defenbach said. Those incentives, along with the lower price for compressed natural gas, have made the difference in Utah, he said.
“The (natural gas) motorists are getting a great deal down there,” Defenbach said. “If I lived on the Wasatch Front, I would be driving a CNG vehicle.”
Rocky Barker: 377-6484