STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Grant Hammer has been converting cars to run on compressed natural gas for years. His work has always been a side job, but, in recent years, his vision of vehicles powered by natural gas is gaining a level of attention that is hard to ignore.
As new fracking technologies lead to the unlocking of vast reserves of natural gas, state and local governments are forging ahead with efforts to use that resource to power vehicles. They tout the energy source’s cost savings, air-quality benefits, domestic production and job-creation potential.
Government, nonprofit and industry officials in La Plata County are joining in those state and regional discussions to assess the feasibility of using natural gas to power vehicles locally, though the county hasn’t taken formal action to pursue such an initiative.
“We’re looking for new and better ways to keep using what we have,” La Plata County Commissioner Kellie Hotter said. Hotter is part of a small group that is pursuing efforts locally to explore the potential for natural gas-powered vehicles and to have a voice in statewide and regional discussions on the issue.
Several current initiatives revolve around resolving a key obstacle in the mass development of compressed natural gas or liquefied natural gas powered vehicles: syncing supply and demand.
Giving the market a push
Individuals, companies and governments can’t use natural gas-powered vehicles without a nearby filling station, but any private developer willing to build a station needs a guaranteed demand. And demand isn’t expected to grow without an effort by manufacturers to produce an affordable natural gas-vehicle option.
“Its like the chicken or the egg,” Hammer said. “One way or another, we need to decide what we’re going to do, and do it.”
In one effort to solve the dilemma, Gov. John Hickenlooper was one of 13 governors who joined a coordinated initiative to commit to switching new fleet purchases from gasoline to natural gas-powered vehicles. The idea, according to the Memorandum of Understanding, is to provide a demand base large enough to propel auto manufacturers to produce affordable and functional natural-gas vehicles. The states also agree to encourage the development and expansion of compressed natural gas-fueling infrastructure, according to the memorandum.
The 13 governments last week sent out a joint request for proposal for a purchase agreement with manufacturers. The agreement would allow participation from state agencies, counties, municipalities, special districts and school districts that have vehicle fleets.
As part of the process, local governments from across the state, including La Plata County, chimed in with input about specific requirements that should be included in vehicle designs as well as obstacles and concerns about a transition to natural-gas vehicles.
La Plata County also is well-represented in the Western Slope Compressed Natural Gas Collaborative, a group working to “accelerate adoption of compressed natural gas, or CNG, as a transportation fuel in western Colorado.” The group is exploring finance mechanisms, partnerships, demand and resource needs. It also has its eye on three case studies commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office to explore the potential successes and struggles of natural gas as a transportation fuel. The results are expected to be released in early August.
Natural gas, a win-win?
Hotter cited several reasons for La Plata County to pursue natural-gas vehicles, from jobs creation and sales-tax potential to cost savings for governments.
Natural gas averages about $2 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, making it one of the lowest cost fuels available, according to the Colorado Energy Office.
And La Plata County’s long history of natural-gas production means it already has most of the infrastructure – pipelines, compressor station and a liquefied natural-gas plant near Ignacio – that would be needed to make natural gas available to a filling station for cars, said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council.
Vehicles could provide local demand for the area’s production, Zeller said.
“The gas we’re drilling could be used for compressed natural-gas cars here or in California,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were using some of our own product here?”
Durango: The missing link
A filling station in Durango would be a crucial link in what is becoming a regional network of stations.
“You can get from Denver to Rifle to Salt Lake City (on natural gas) and there is a filling station in Albuquerque,” Zeller said. “La Plata County is the missing link.”
But the question remains whether government and private sector here could drum up enough demand to make it worthwhile to retrofit or build a new station to accommodate natural-gas cars. The fueling stations are estimated to cost $500,000 to $1.5 million, said Gregg Dubit, the executive director of the Four Corners Office for Resource Efficiency.
The office is helping lead one effort to gauge interest with a survey to be distributed among the public and private sector asking about potential interest in converting fleets to compressed natural gas (liquefied natural gas is best used for heavy-duty vehicles).
Vehicle fleets, whether company or government owned, are usually considered the most viable early adopters of alternative-fuel vehicles because they refuel at a central location and provide stable demand, Dubit said.
The survey creators hope to begin distributing the questionnaire in August.
Evaluating the whole picture
Even as many governments are throwing their support behind natural-gas vehicles, others who work with energy issues locally maintain the issue deserves more research, analysis and some skepticism.
We don’t have a good handle on future natural-gas supplies and reserves, which would undoubtably affect the progression of natural-gas vehicles, said Gwen Lachelt, executive director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project. Lachelt is running against Hotter for the District 2 seat on the La Plata County Board of County Commission.
Lachelt also criticized claims of natural gas’ environmental benefit, citing evidence that the fuel could actually be worse for the climate than coal when the entire process is taken into account, including accidental emissions releases through flaring during drilling and faulty equipment valves.
While it may make sense to transition fleets to natural-gas vehicles, it doesn’t make sense to try to push demand among individual consumers, she said.
“I think it is a mistake to create a new demand with passenger vehicles when what we have to do is be transitioning away from fossil fuels,” Lachelt said.
Before moving forward with action to boost supply and demand in this arena, there needs to be a full analysis of the potential environmental and economic impacts, both positive and negative, she said. The job creation of such an initiative needs to be evaluated specifically and realistically.
Dubit agreed, saying that 4CORE is “well positioned” to gather and report such analytical data.
“The entire concept needs to be evaluated by the potential stakeholders for the social, environmental and economic potential,” Dubit said. “Our sparsely populated, unique geographical region warrants further study in CNG.”