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Charleston natural gas conference to highlight vehicle, fleet conversions

By Megan Workman
The Associated Press
Waste Management driver Alan Sadler fills his truck with CNG gas at the company's filling station in Washington, Pa. There are about 112,000 natural gas-powered vehicles in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Large companies -- like Waste Management, which already has 1,000 natural gas-powered trucks -- are converting vehicles to run on natural gas while states, including West Virginia, are building new filling stations to cater to the converted vehicles.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kelly Bragg hopes the country will soon have fuel diversity at all filling stations.

Bragg, an energy development specialist at the state Division of Energy, said she wants to see each region in the nation capitalize on its resources so that drivers who pull up to a filling station can have numerous options of which fuel to use in their vehicles.

That's why now is the right time to take advantage of West Virginia's homegrown resource -- natural gas, she said.

As the vast Marcellus Shale gas deposit is tapped, the state will have access to an abundance of natural gas, which is safe, cleaner and generally cheaper than conventional gasoline, Bragg said.

"In the Midwest, there are way more ethanol stations because they produce the corn and feedstock for that," Bragg said. "Ethanol in West Virginia won't be big here because we don't produce those crops, but we do produce natural gas."

Bragg is one of 30 speakers who will boast about the benefits of using natural gas in vehicles at the first-ever 2013 Appalachian Basin NGV Expo and Conference at the Charleston Civic Center.

The three-day conference runs May 13-15 and covers everything from filling station locations and road taxes to converting fleets and everyday vehicles to run on natural gas.

Bragg will give an overview of alternative fuels.

The state Division of Energy is one of 40 exhibitors that will show off conversion kits, equipment and natural gas derivative-fueled vehicles.

More than 300 participants -- including governors from other states, business owners, researchers and energy innovators -- are expected to attend. The expo is open to the public and registration ends May 14.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, which is hosting the conference along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the expo will raise awareness of the availability of natural gas in the state.

Tomblin organized a Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force to figure out how to transition the state's fleet to an alternative fuel.

Tomblin said earlier this year state government should convert at least one-fourth of its 7,800-vehicle fleet within four years.

Kanawha County officials already own one vehicle that will run on either gasoline or natural gas, and the Kanawha Valley Regional Transportation Authority has agreed to buy eight natural gas-powered buses.

"There were 11 stations in the state in the 1990s, and you could get around the state using natural gas," DeMarco said. "If you look at a map of the U.S. today, there's a clear area in the Appalachian basin where there are no stations and that place is West Virginia. Even though we started it, we have no stations today."

West Virginia is one of three states that does not have any compressed natural gas, or CNG, filling stations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. South Dakota and Maine don't have CNG stations, either.

IGS Energy-CNG Services is building four natural gas filling stations along Interstate 79, the Ohio company announced in January.

The $10 million proposal will put stations near the Spring Street Foodland in Charleston, in Jane Lew, Bridgeport and just across the Pennsylvania state line at Mount Morris, said T.J. Meadows, West Virginia business manager for IGS Energy-CNG Services.

The Charleston and Bridgeport stations should be open by this fall, he said.

Meadows said the state Department of Highways has already committed as a customer at the Charleston station.

Meadows is speaking on a panel at the conference about legislation that has been passed to spur the natural gas market in West Virginia.

He said the state's tax incentives for purchasing and converting natural gas-powered vehicles is what attracted his company to the Mountain State.

The tax credit covers 35 percent of the cost of an alternative-fuel vehicle, up to $7,500 for cars and $25,000 for large trucks. It also covers 50 percent of the cost of the conversion of a car or truck to natural gas, up to $7,500 for cars and $25,000 for large trucks.

IGS Energy-CNG Services will have an exhibit at the conference to update attendees about the I-79 filling stations projects.

There are more than 1,200 natural gas filling stations around the country, but only about half of them are public, according to the Department of Energy.

"I think as additional infrastructure comes on, you'll see the state take a more serious look at natural gas vehicles and grow their fleet of natural gas vehicles," Meadows said. "Businesses will adopt it first, then consumers will get very excited. Now that we know the Marcellus is here, West Virginia is on the forefront of the market."

Meadows said using natural gas as a transportation fuel "makes a huge amount of sense."

Federal and state governments made a push for natural gas-powered vehicles in the 1990s, but the idea petered out when gasoline prices dropped to a point where there was no longer a big advantage in switching to natural gas.

But Bragg said technology has improved since then, and natural gas prices should continue to stay low.

At $2.10 per gallon, natural gas is cheaper than gasoline's $3.50 per gallon national average last week, according to the Department of Energy.

The price of natural gas has been steadily declining in recent years, but it has also been "extremely volatile," said Byron Harris, director of the state Public Service Commission's Consumer Advocate Division.

Harris said he is concerned about the state repeating the mistake it made in the '90s.

"You had natural gas utilities subsidizing the infrastructure necessary to serve these facilities that ended up being abandoned," Harris said. "They built these facilities out and were able to charge customers for the cost of facilities that ... had minimal revenue streams on them.

"Customers paid to build pipelines and compressors that the company never earned much money on."

Harris said he thinks natural gas should be used as a fuel alternative, but using CNG in fleet vehicles "seems to work best."

Natural gas powers about 112,000 vehicles in the U.S. and 14.8 million vehicles worldwide, according to the Department of Energy.

Large companies, like Waste Management, have already converted their fleet trucks to natural gas.

Waste Management, the nation's largest recycler, has more than 1,000 natural gas-powered trucks, which is the largest in the industry, according to its website.

Chesapeake Energy has converted 2,000 of its 5,000 vehicles to the alternate fuel source.

"A big part of that is the trucks come back to the same place so you don't need infrastructure of gas stations like you do for gasoline," Harris said.

Meadows said fleets have very high fuel costs because they drive such a high amount of miles each year. When they hear they can save up to 50 percent by using natural gas-powered vehicles instead of diesel, that's when the change starts to happen, Meadows said.

"West Virginia has really become a leader since the development of Marcellus in natural gas," Meadows said. "We step into this next stage of natural gas as a transportation fuel. Hosting this event to see a West Virginia resource is a big win for the state."

The general public is invited to participate in the 2013 Appalachian Basin NGV Expo and Conference's "Ride and Drive" Wednesday, May 15 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to experience a natural gas-powered light-duty truck. Landau Eugene Murphy will attend the reception Monday. For more information about the conference or to register, visit www.ngv-expo.com or call Rebekah Hogue, of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, at 304-343-1609 or email expoinfo@ngv-expo.com.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.

 

 


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