Fueling fleets

Local governments can help begin the shift to natural gas as a vehicle fuel

Natural gas is this region’s natural fuel. And there is no reason we should not be taking full advantage of that fact – to do our part toward cleaner air and for what could be significant cost savings.

As the Herald reported Thursday, some local groups have come together to support greater use of natural gas to power vehicles. And that is certainly welcome. At this juncture, however, what is more important is for local governments and other fleet operators to get behind this effort. What is needed now is not so much investigation as action. The technology exists, and the economics are understood.

Natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel fuel, which means using it to power vehicles results in less air pollution. But while that is typically the first reason cited for embracing natural gas as a motor-vehicle fuel, it is hardly the only one or even necessarily the most compelling.

Just as important are its economic realities. For starters, the gas is already here. The coal-bed methane produced in much of La Plata County is natural gas. And with that, this area has the companies that produce and handle it, including compressors.

At the same time, with the nationwide boom in natural-gas production, the price is down. That is a bad thing for La Plata County taxpayers accustomed to the gas industry picking up a large part of our property tax bill, but all the more reason to turn that situation to our advantage.

The price of a “gasoline gallon equivalent” of natural gas quoted in Greeley last week was $2.33. Other estimates vary from $2.50 to $1.50 to even less. But, by any measure, the price is a lot lower than gasoline has been in some time.

Even better, the real cost savings go far beyond just the price of the fuel. Because natural gas burns so cleanly, engine wear is greatly reduced and engines last longer. An industry group – cngcalifornia.com – says an engine “will last about twice as long ... (and can go) four times as long between oil changes as a regular gasoline engine.” Engine-related maintenance costs are reduced overall. (There is a conversion for diesels as well, but that is a bit more complicated.)

There is a cost to converting a car or truck to run on natural gas. Industry experts put that at between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on the vehicle.

But the reduced operating and maintenance costs can quickly offset that. Depending on the vehicle and its application, that payback period can be as little as a year for larger, high-use vehicles.

The cngcalifornia.com website says, for a car driven 20,000 miles per year, and figuring only the savings on fuel bought at a public filling station, the payback could take 3½ years. Including maintenance savings and figuring fuel costs at fleet rates would reduce that significantly. Fleet rates for conversions might also be lower as well.

The biggest objection to converting seems to be the lack of refueling stations. There are only 15 in Colorado – all along the Front Range – and only four in New Mexico.

But when Henry Ford was born, nobody had ever heard of a gas station and, when he died, they were commonplace nationwide. Things can change quickly when people want something.

That is also one reason for starting with fleets. La Plata County, the city of Durango, Durango School District 9-R and La Plata Electric are all headquartered within a couple of miles of each other. Most of their vehicles could probably be fueled from just a few stations.

Sharing the cost of those installations would spread out the initial costs – and there might even be a gas company or two willing to help. The savings would then benefit local taxpayers and consumers.

Details need to be worked out, of course. But the basic idea does not need to be investigated a lot more. It should be begun.