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Kanawha has SUV on natural gas, foresees it for fleet

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.

"The main contributing factor was the price of gasoline dropped so low," Thomas said. But gasoline is much more expensive now, and natural-gas technology has improved.

Geologists also have learned to tap the vast Marcellus Shale gas reserves that lie buried beneath Appalachia. Carper foresees a Marcellus Shale gas boom making vast quantities of cheap gas available in the near future.

The main obstacle to converting to natural gas right now is a lack of natural-gas filling stations. Thomas said the Tahoe can be filled from any existing gas line, but the process takes several hours and requires about $5,000 worth of special equipment.

But Thomas, Carper and other local officials believe a natural gas filling station soon will be built in the area. County officials are working with the Charleston Area Alliance and other local agencies to entice private entrepreneurs to build a station. County officials could assure to a developer contracts to fill up government vehicles if a developer were to provide the capital to build the station.

State lawmakers also want to pass legislation to give incentives to government agencies to buy natural-gas vehicles.

"What I'm trying to do is get ahead of the curve," Carper said. "The gas is here, just beneath our feet.

"The ultimate goal is to burn as much natural gas -- that we have here in West Virginia -- as we can and quit importing oil."

Eventually, Carper envisions fleets of government and private-sector vehicles running on cheap Marcellus Shale gas -- gas that is tapped and refined by West Virginia workers in West Virginia, sent to filling stations owned and operated by West Virginians and pumped into engines converted by West Virginia workers in West Virginia plants.

"To me, it's a no-brainer," Carper said.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.


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