CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County got its first government vehicle converted to run on compressed natural gas this week.
"We filled it up for [the equivalent of] $1.89 a gallon," said Matt Thomas, who ferried the brand-new 2013 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV from Columbus, Ohio, to Charleston on Monday.
Thomas, who is in charge of special projects for the Kanawha County Commission, has spent the past eight months studying natural-gas-powered vehicles and the feasibility of converting part of the county's vehicle fleet to natural gas. He said county officials decided to assign the first natural-gas SUV to Emergency Services Director Dale Petry as a test vehicle to explore the practicality of natural-gas cars.
Thomas said the county ordered the Tahoe off the state vehicle contract for $30,000, then spent another $12,000 on a conversion kit to allow the SUV to burn natural gas. He said the fuel savings from using natural gas will quickly pay for the cost of conversion.
The Tahoe also runs on gasoline, and can switch back and forth between the two fuel sources at the touch of a button. The vehicle has a series of pipes and hoses that inject natural gas directly into the eight-cylinder engine's fuel injectors, fed from a big yellow compressed-gas tank bolted in the back that holds the equivalent of 11.2 gallons of gasoline.
"It's bulletproof, fireproof and explosion-proof," Thomas said. It's also securely bolted to the frame so it doesn't become a flying steamroller in the event of a collision.
Thomas said there's no noticeable loss of power or pep when switching between fuel sources. "I drove about 100 miles on natural gas at 80 mph, 70 mph," Thomas said. "No difference."
Last month, the Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority committed to buying eight natural-gas-powered buses using a $2 million federal grant. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said he also wants to convert some Sheriff's Department vehicles to use natural gas.
State and federal officials made a big push in the 1990s to convert government vehicles to run on natural gas. At one time, there were about 700 natural-gas-powered vehicles in the state. But the idea fizzled because of a lack of interest and relatively little fuel savings over conventional gasoline engines.