Not Hot Air: Compressed Natural Gas Vehicles Make Strides In Connecticut

It's never a great idea to stand indoors in a room where cars and trucks are whizzing by, for all sorts of reasons. But it wasn't so bad inside the Connecticut Expo Center late Wednesday, as vehicles rolled out at an expo showcasing clean fuels and vehicles.

My eyes weren't watery from the usual emissions that would come from most parades of gasoline-chuggers.

On the other hand, anyone who cares about alternative fuels — compressed natural gas, biofuels, electricity and hydrogen — can hardly get teary-eyed about the progress Connecticut, and the nation for that matter, is making in the effort to evolve out of the gasoline era.

That's especially true for compressed natural gas, or CNG, which offers lower prices than gasoline, a longer driving range per fill-up than electric and technology that's ready to hit mass production.

"It's jerky. It depends in federal funding," said Lee Grannis, the New Haven area coordinator for the Clean Cities Coalition, which is spearheading much of the progress in alternative fuels.

The United States is far behind nations such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Connecticut is far behind other states. Massachusetts has 646 public transit buses running on CNG and New York has 500, said Craig Peters, the Clean Cities coordinator for the Hartford region. Connecticut has none, although we just rolled out five hydrogen-fueled buses that run on fuel cells, our local alternative fuels industry.

The good news is that it's changing, slowly, with construction of a new set of fueling stations in Connecticut. We saw a CNG station opening up in Meriden on Tuesday. Five more will follow in Glastonbury, Bloomfield, West Haven, Bridgeport and at Bradley airport in Windsor Locks. A liquid natural gas station for big trucks will open in Bridgeport, and the station at Bradley will have an electric plug-in location as well as a biofuels outlet.

This round is being financed through a federal Clean Cities grant of $13.2 million, combined with money from partners such as utility firms and bus and taxi companies, for a total of $29 million.

It's progress, but there's a long way to go before this stuff reaches a critical mass. Yes, CNG is still a fossil fuel, but its emissions are far cleaner than gasoline or diesel and it helps solve the issue of foreign oil dependency, since U.S. supplies of natural gas remain plentiful.

And this idea can work on a large scale, unlike pie-in-the-sky mass transit schemes such as a ridiculous, gazillion dollar busway between New Britain and Hartford and a two-gazillion-dollar high-speed rail line between New Haven and Springfield.

Mass transit has an important role to play and some mass transit projects are worth the billions they cost to build. But most of us are not getting out of our cars unless gasoline prices rise sharply, perhaps through higher taxes — a hopeful idea for another column.

Connecticut planners have always been more into highway widening than alternative modes of transport, so new types of fuels should be a natural here. But, alas, it hasn't happened.

"The state has not built any natural gas stations," said Peters, fleet sales manager at Manchester Honda. "We've always scratched our head why that doesn't happen."

It's a chicken-and-egg problem, as motorists can't buy vehicles that use exotic fuels as long as long as those fuels remain exotic. Electric plug-in stations are gaining in popularity under Gov. M. Jodi Rell, even before cars such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the streets.

"We're going to have more plugs out there than we've got vehicles to plug into for the next couple of years," Grannis said.

Electric vehicles come in several types, including the gasoline-electric hybrid technology in the Toyota Prius, which lowers gasoline consumption somewhat; plug-in hybrids, notably the Volt, which will still use gasoline but rely more on electricity than non-plug-ins; and the straight electric plug-in, such as the Leaf, which will require a massive network of plug-in locations.

Compressed natural gas, in some ways, promises a better route to large scale, based on the numbers. The Honda Civic GX, which runs on CNG, costs $7,000 more than the conventional Civic, Peters said. A federal tax credit of $4,000 brings the added cost down to $3,000. Because there won't be a widespread network of fueling stations anytime soon, a $4,000 home dispenser would be a wise investment for people with natural gas lines to their houses. A $1,000 tax credit brings that down.

Total additional cost to buy the vehicle and fueler: $6,000.

If you drive 12,000 miles a year, get 30 miles to the gallon and gasoline costs $3 a gallon, you're paying $1,200 a year for fuel. With your CNG car, you could pay a total of $400 a year, depending on lots of factors. You'll recoup your $6,000 investment in about eight years.

It's not a slam dunk, especially if natural gas prices rise. But the added costs could come down very quickly if people buy the cars.

A dozen years ago when advocates talked about alternative fuels, "it was a science project," Grannis said.

Now could be the time for an explosion of growth. Speaking of explosions, they tell me natural gas cars are safer in collisions than gasoline models.​

This article was first published by CT now.


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