Project aims to make fueling fleets a gas

A growing number of automotive manufacturers build vehicles that run on compressed natural gas. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Heather McGregor can enumerate a lengthy list of benefits to fueling fleets with compressed natural gas. But she knows the single benefit likely to most interest fleet managers: lower costs.

At $1 to $1.50 less than the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline or diesel, the savings associated with CNG can add up quickly over the course of a year and thousands of miles, said McGregor, administrative manager and technical writer for Clean Energy Economy for the Region. “It starts to turn into real money.”

Based in Carbondale, the nonprofit group manages a  pilot project to promote the increased use of alternative-fuel vehicles in private and public fleets in nine Colorado counties.

While the year-long project involves electric plug-ins as well as vehicles fueled by propane and even biofuels, efforts in Mesa and Garfield counties focus on CNG, McGregor said.

The group sponsored a recent tour from Grand Junction to Glenwood Springs featuring stops at CNG fueling stations and a CNG vehicle service facility to kick off the Refuel Colorado Fleets project and raise awareness about the benefits of CNG. A grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to the Colorado Energy Office funds the project.

As part of the effort, “energy coaches” will offer free technical consulting to businesses and government entities considering a switch to alternative-fuel vehicles, McGregor said. “We’re looking for more and more fleets to give us a call and find out if this makes sense for them.”

The analysis will take into account a variety of factors, among them the age, condition and use of existing vehicles; the distance they’re driven; the cost of purchasing and operating alternative-fuel vehicles; the potential savings associated with lower fuel costs; and the time required to recoup the additional cost of purchasing an alternative-fuel vehicle.

State tax credits constitute another yet part of the analysis, McGregor said. For 2013, businesses that purchase an alternative-fuel vehicle receive a 35 percent tax credit off the difference in cost between that vehicle and a comparable vehicle fueled with gasoline. For 2014, the credit will decrease to 25 percent.

For a fleet manager considering replacing a gasoline-powered truck with a diesel truck that costs $7,500 more or a CNG truck that’s $10,000 more, the tax credit makes the cost for the CNG vehicle comparable, she said. And that’s before the lower price of CNG is considered.

The economics won’t work out for every fleet. But for some operations, a switch to CNG can offer “amazing results,” McGregor said. In switching eight trash trucks to CNG, the City of Grand Junction saves about $10,000 a year per vehicle in lower fuel costs, she said.

In addition to the lower price of CNG compared to gasoline and diesel, a confluence of other developments make CNG a good option, McGregor said.

A growing number of companies are manufacturing vehicles specifically for CNG and offering factory warranties, she said. The list includes Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and GMC as well as Kenworth, International, Peterbilt and Mack. Dealerships in the area now offer maintenance and repair services for CNG vehicles.

At the same, there’s been an increase in the number of CNG fueling stations, McGregor said. That includes public stations in Grand Junction, Parachute and Rifle. Fourteen more stations are located along the Front Range of Colorado and nearly 600 nationwide.

The additional stations make it possible to drive CNG vehicles not only between Western Colorado and Denver, but also across the U.S., she said.

In Mesa County, there’s an effort under way to open a second CNG fueling station in Clifton or Palisade, McGregor said.

The existing CNG facility on the Riverside Parkway in Grand Junction offers slow-fill stations for trash trucks, buses and other government vehicles as well as a fast-fill station for public use. A second facility might offer a similar setup, McGregor said. “That’s a pretty cool model.”

Along with the potential savings associated with using more CNG vehicles in fleets, there’s a broader economic issue involved, McGregor said. And that’s shifting money spent on crude oil exports from foreign countries to money spent on natural gas produced in the United States, much of that in Colorado and on the Western Slope. The natural gas industry employs about 9,000 people in the state.

By one estimate, about 40 percent of the money spent on gasoline and diesel goes for oil exports. In Mesa County, annual spending on gasoline and diesel totals about $280 million. That means about $112 million goes to purchase foreign oil, she said.

 

For more information about the Refuel Colorado Fleets project and free technical assistance in analyzing the use of alternative-fuel vehicles in fleets, call Clean Energy Economy for the Region at (970) 704-9200 or visit the website located at www.GarfieldCleanEnergy.org. 

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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