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With natural-gas car, a rub

Cheaper fuel requires tank upgrade or costlier model

By Paul Quinn

This article was published May 14, 2011 at 3:03 a.m.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/RICK MCFARLAND - 05/13/11- Walter Bryant, president of Region 1 for CenterPoint Energy, finishes filling the first car to use the Southwestern Energy natural gas station in Damascus Friday.

— There’s a new gas station in central Arkansas where you can fill up for $1.60 a gallon.

But there are a few catches.

For starters, if your vehicle can’t use natural gas, it must go through a costly conversion.

Still, “as gasoline prices continue to remain high, [compressed natural gas] provides consumers with a more affordable option to fuel their vehicles,” said Steve Mueller, president and chiefexecutive officer of Houstonbased Southwestern Energy Co., the largest producer in the Fayetteville Shale. Southwestern Energy owns the new 24-hour filling station at 16038 U.S. 65 in Damascus.

Mueller said most naturalgas cars with 15-gallon tanks can go 150 to 200 miles, or between 10 and 13 miles per gallon.

However, it costs about $10,500 to have a car converted, said Jay Myers of Sherwood-based Crain Automotive, the only company in the state that does the conversions. Most of the cost isfor the tank, which runs about $7,200 and can be switched to a different car later on.

The cars can be converted to run off both natural gas and gasoline or diesel, Myers said.

For someone who drives 20,000 miles a year in a natural-gas vehicle that gets 200 miles per tank, it would save about $2,390 a year based on Friday’s average price for regular in the state and the current price of natural gas. That means it would take a little more than four years for the conversion to pay foritself.

However, if the price of natural gas were to return to levels of a few years ago, the equation would change significantly. On Friday, the price of natural gas on the New York Mercantile Exchange settled at $4.246 per million British thermal units. In the winter of 2005, the cost was $15 per million Btu.

Denise McCourt, a spokesman for Washington, D.C.-based Natural Gas Vehicles for America, an organization pushing for more naturalgas-powered vehicles and stations, acknowledges a natural-gas-powered car is “not for everyone.”

“If you drive a lot you’re going to make it back faster, no question, regardless of thesize of the vehicle,” McCourt said.

“For a lot of us who only drive 12,000 miles a year, it’s going to take us much longer to make that investment back.”

Advantages of natural-gas vehicles include fewer greenhouse-pollutant emissions and longer vehicle lives, Mueller said.

Not many cars come equipped to run off natural gas and the ones offered are more expensive, McCourt said.

Honda’s natural-gas-powered Civic GX will be available for about $25,490 throughout the country by the end of the year, making it the most expensive Civic on the market. GM’s Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans can run on natural gas. That option, however, adds $15,910 to the suggested retail price.

There are only two public stations in the state, one in Fort Smith and one in Damascus. Another station is set to open July 1 in North Little Rock.

Mueller noted that Southwestern Energy is looking at where other filling stations are needed to service its fleet in the Fayetteville Shale, along with the public’s vehicles. The company has converted 40 vehicles to natural gas and plans to have about 100 natural-gaspowered vehicles by the end of the year.

An at-home filling appliance is available for about $3,400, and it takes up to seven hours to fill a tank because home gas pressure is lower than a filling station’s.

McCourt said that as more businesses convert their fleets to run on natural gas, more filling stations will pop up and it will be cheaper to converta vehicle.

Walter Bryant, a vice president for Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, which has between 200 and 300 vehicles in Arkansas, said it has converted six of those to natural gas and is planning to introduce more as old cars are retired.

AT&T Corp. of Dallas, which has 543 natural-gas vehicles in its nationwide fleet, may bring some to Arkansas now that stations are opening, said Ted Wagnon, a spokesman for AT&T.

According to Natural Gas Vehicles for America’s website, there are fewer than 500 public natural-gas filling stations in the U.S., with about 112,000 natural-gas-powered vehicles.

“Right now, if you want to travel long distances, you have to plot your route,” McCourt said. “Americans just aren’t going to do that.”

Business, Pages 29 on 05/14/2011

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Displaying 1 - 2 of 2 total comments

NoUserName says... May 14, 2011 at 10:51 a.m.

So, let me get this straight: Natural gas costs ~ 1/2 as much per gallon as gasoline. Natural gas mileage ~ 1/2 as much as you get from gasoline (obviously depending on vehicle and such but taking the average mid size car mpg).

Seems to me the net cost savings ~ $0.

Well, actually you are seriously in the hole if you got a natural gas vehicle.

( | suggest removal )

One says... May 14, 2011 at 10:24 p.m.

I thought I was the only one reading this atricle. No good for me. Even the flex fuel stations have too high prices per gallon.

( | suggest removal )

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