Natural gas even sounds greener

hondacngDemand for compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles is increasing, but availability in Richmond is limited.

Ever since Baker Equipment, a local trucking equipment company, began offering compressed natural gas vehicle conversions last month, the company has received anywhere from 10 to 50 conversion-related calls a day, tripling their overall call volume.

The company also has offices in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Georgia, and is the only certified installer for retail CNG systems on the East coast.

But they have only converted about 15 vehicles so far and none in Richmond.

Josh Addison, who works at Baker Equipment, says EPA-regulations limit the engine types approved for conversions, and only certain 2008 Ford engine types have been cleared to run exclusively on natural gas.

“Everyone says to me ‘we want to go green and stop sending our money into foreign oil,’ and I guarantee that is the reason 90 % percent of people want to do this,” said Addison.

Addison says most of the interest has come from commercial and municipal fleet agencies from all over the eastern United States.

The conversion costs between $15,000 and $20,000, but after a year and half that cost can be recouped if the vehicle is driven between 20,000 to 40,000 miles a year.

Because natural gas is cleaner than gasoline, Addison says converted vehicle engines have double the life expectancy and do not require frequent oil changes. The fuel savings equal about 40 percent compared to gasoline. On average, fueling with natural gas costs about 4 cents a mile, as opposed to 8 cents a mile for gasoline.

“In many cases, [they’re] cutting fuel bills in half, especially with commercial fleets,” said Addison.

Federal tax credits also are an incentive for individuals thinking about converting.

Baker’s manufacturer for their CNG equipment, Dallas-based BAF Technologies, has to make individual investments of $50,000 to $500,000 for each engine class, and approval can take months.

While government regulations currently limit the number of conversions Baker Equipment can currently offer their customers, consumers in Richmond eager to stick it to OPEC have another option.

The Honda Civic GX is the only CNG vehicle manufactured for sale in the U.S., and Pearson Honda on Midlothian Turnpike just added a 2009 model to their showroom floor this week. Pearson is the state’s only Honda dealership authorized to sell the vehicles, which cost about $4,000 more than a gasoline-powered Civic.

Victor Winston, who is in charge of Virginia sales of Honda’s CNG vehicles, says they currently have about five people looking to buy and have received between 10-15 inquires this week.

Winston has sold Honda’s CNG vehicles to a few municipalities in North Carolina, as well as Duke University.

In the past, CNG vehicles have primarily been marketed to fleets, but American Honda is hoping to break ground by making the technology more accessible to individual buyers.

The main obstacle he says is the availability of CNG fueling stations. CNGNow.com, an advocacy site launched by alternative energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, reports that Virginia has only 10 stations.

Winston says a majority of those stations are private, but American Honda also offers a home fueling station that refills the vehicle overnight at a cost of about $16 per fill up. Depending on the owner’s driving style, that is enough natural gas to take them 280 miles.

Richmond’s only existing CNG pump, located near the Boulevard on West Leigh Street next to the Movieland development, is slated to close, according to Winston. The station is owned by the City with fuel provided by James River Petroleum. The station primarily serves gasoline and diesel to city vehicles.

The City of Richmond had CNG vehicles a few years ago but has since stopped using them. Winston says the City’s fleet of converted Ford vehicles had leakage problems.

He is currently in negotiations with the City and various entities to open up a new CNG station, a crucial step for the growth of CNG in the area.

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