CNG was here, gone, now it might be coming back

CNG was here, gone, now it might be coming back
Roy Urrutia, Public Affairs Director - Atmos Energy
Roy Urrutia, Public Affairs Director - Atmos Energy

By John Kanelis

Do you remember the energy crisis?

Or when we were so worried about air pollution we looked for alternative methods of powering our motor vehicles?

How about when state and local officials began pushing to convert gasoline-powered fleet vehicles to power systems that ran on compressed natural gas?

All of those things happened in Amarillo and throughout the Panhandle, but then the initiative more or less – if you'll pardon the pun – ran out of gas. Why? According to one of the men in the middle of it all, technology got ahead of vehicles' ability to convert from gasoline to natural gas.

"It was in the 1980s and early-to-mid-1990s," recalled Roy Urrutia, public affairs director for Atmos Energy. "Amarillo (Independent School District) had converted most of its buses to compressed natural gas. They were using a dual-fuel system, converting from gasoline to natural gas as needed," he said, adding that Pampa ISD had "some vehicles too" that were powered by CNG.

The vehicles used gasoline as their "primary fuel," he said, "and then they could switch to CNG."

Then something happened at the places where they manufacture these vehicles, Urrutia said. Automobile and truck manufacturers went from making vehicles that were powered with carburetion systems to vehicles that ran on fuel-injection systems, he said. "With the onset of fuel injection," Urrutia noted, "it became difficult to convert to CNG."

"I guess you can blame it on the Big Three," he said with a smile, noting automakers Ford, Chrysler and General Motors.

So, he said, "the decision was made to eliminate the use of CNG" in these fleet vehicles.

There was a CNG fueling station at South 42nd Avenue and Georgia Street, Urrutia recalled. It's now gone.

"We had no infrastructure nearby" for these vehicles to acquire CNG, Urrutia said.

However, Urrutia said there's hope for a return to CNG as a primary fuel source for fleet vehicles – and perhaps even for individuals and families.

The technology has caught up with the motor vehicles' fueling systems, he said, and Atmos is considering alternatives now to reintroduce public entities to the use of dual-fuel vehicles.

One possible avenue for that resurgence in CNG use, he said, is the presence of a CNG fueling station that was installed recently at the Love's truck stop on the south side of Interstate 40, just west of the Lakeside Road exit. Prior to that station opening up, there were not CNG fueling stations between the Dallas-Fort Worth area and Albuquerque, according to Urrutia. "This station gives us a CNG stop about halfway between the Metroplex and Albuquerque," he said.

The Love's truck stop services about 20 to 25 customers daily, said a store official who asked to remain anonymous.

"The people who come in usually have to learn how to hook it up," he said, explaining that customers have to avoid air pockets getting in the fuel line; those pockets pose a potential hazard, he added.

"Most of our customers are driving 18-wheelers, I'd say about 90 percent of them," the Love's official noted of those who fuel up with CNG.

He said a lot of long-haul vehicles are traveling "between Dallas and Los Angeles and this is a good place to stop to refuel."

"Interest in the CNG fuel is growing," he said, indicating that the use has picked up steadily at the truck stop.

"A lot of people don't know this," he said, "but most of the vehicles owned by the state of Texas run on either CNG or propane, and sometimes they run on both fuels." They, too, refuel at the Love's CNG station, he said.

Even with the relatively cheap gasoline these days, Urrutia said, CNG remains a more economical way to fuel motor vehicles. "Natural gas pricing is more stable," he said, adding that the cost is about half to one-third of what the utility pays for gasoline to power its fleet of vehicles.

He said Atmos plans to order dual-fuel vehicles in the future as it replaces vehicles in its fleet. One of the problems associated with such vehicles, Urrutia said, is the weight that's added by the extra tanks required for the dual-fuel vehicles. "They add a lot of weight to the vehicle," he said, noting that it reduces fuel efficiency.

Do CNG-powered vehicles perform at the same level as gasoline-powered vehicles? Urrutia said yes, without question or hesitation. What's more, he said, "the engines are cleaner because CNG is so much cleaner than gasoline." CNG produces zero carbon buildup on engine blocks, he said.

Urrutia noted Atmos's keen interest in promoting CNG use. "Look, we're not in the production of natural gas," he said. "Atmos distributes natural gas." He said that the utility has about 100 years of "known supply," but added, "We also have a virtually unlimited supply of untapped natural gas out there."

He said the utility has "come full circle with the technology and the interest" in compressed natural gas.