Two years ago, all the operations vehicles at the Lincoln Airport, from maintenance trucks to police vehicles, ran on either unleaded gasoline or diesel fuel. Now 11 out of a fleet of 25 run on compressed natural gas.
The airport used a federal grant to help pay to convert the first four vehicles to run on natural gas but has since paid to convert seven on its own.
The airport is among a growing number of local government agencies and private companies starting to see the value of switching to natural gas to fuel their fleets.
"The market for natural gas vehicles has really taken off locally," said Paul Cammack, customer relations manager in Lincoln for Black Hills Energy.
Lincoln Airport Executive Director John Wood said the economics make converting to natural gas a no-brainer.
In the past year, the airport has paid an average of $1.33 per gallon of compressed natural gas. Regular unleaded gasoline during that time has averaged well over $3 a gallon, with diesel costing even more.
At the same time, the cost to convert the vehicles has fallen from about $12,000 apiece to around $8,000, Wood said.
At the current prices for gas and the cost of conversion, he said it takes the airport about three years to start saving money.
"I think, financially, it pays off," Wood said. "It saves us money long term."
There are also other factors to consider, he said, such as the fact that natural gas burns cleaner. Not only is that "green," cutting down on emissions, it also could lead to vehicles that last longer and need less maintenance.
"We should save additional money by not having to replace vehicles as often," Wood said.
Black Hills, which had two natural gas vehicles based in Lincoln two years ago, now has 14. That makes up more than half the company's entire fleet.
In addition, the city of Lincoln has three natural gas-powered vehicles, not counting the city Libraries' Bookmobile; the state has one vehicle; and Cammack said he knows of at least four or five private businesses that have at least one vehicle.
A big factor in the local growth has been the availability of fueling stations. The Lincoln Airport opened one a little over a year ago that's open to the public, and Black Hills is close to opening its on-site station to the public. There are also two public natural gas filling stations in Omaha run by Metropolitan Utilities District.
The availability of fueling stations has led to explosive growth in natural gas vehicles in Omaha. Metropolitan Utilities District has 114 such vehicles, 29 percent of its total fleet, said Mark Doyle, senior vice president of the Omaha-based utility.
"It's almost to the point where I don't know if we'll buy another non-natural gas vehicle," Doyle said.
MUD's wholehearted acceptance of natural gas has spread to other businesses and government agencies in Omaha.
Among businesses with large natural gas fleets there are a plumbing company that recently converted about half its fleet to natural gas, and Happy Cab, which also operates in Lincoln, which is now up to more than 50 natural gas-powered cars.
Also, MUD is doing a pilot program with Werner Enterprises. Two of that company's trucks are running on natural gas.
Through the first six months of 2012, 114,440 gallons of compressed natural gas were consumed in the state, according to the Nebraska Energy Office. That's more than one-third more than was consumed in all of 2011.
Still, beyond Lincoln and Omaha, natural gas fueling stations are few and far between, which limits the growth of natural gas-powered vehicles in the rest of the state.
Although there are about 540 such fueling stations nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, most are on the coasts.
Once you get west of Lincoln, the closest stations are in Denver or Cheyenne, Wyo. As for the other states that border Nebraska, Kansas has two stations, Missouri and Iowa have one each and South Dakota has none.
Mark Mitchell, president and owner of Happy Cab, said the availability of fuel is one reason his company has yet to deploy natural gas vehicles to Lincoln. But it is in his plans to put such vehicles here. "We'd absolutely like to have natural gas vehicles operating in Lincoln," Mitchell said.
He said drivers love the vehicles, and the company sees a huge fuel savings. Most of its cars travel 1,000 miles a week or more.
It may be years before such technology becomes affordable and convenient enough for the masses, according to automotive industry analysts. Home-based natural gas dispensers, for example, cost thousands of dollars.
But for now, it seems to make a lot of sense for businesses, especially those with vehicles that travel a lot of miles.
Doyle said the fuel savings in some industries are "staggering," and in many cases companies can actually save more on fuel than than they spent on the purchase price of the vehicle combined with the natural gas conversion cost.
While the growth of natural gas vehicles nationwide has been stagnant in recent years, growth in eastern Nebraska is expected to continue at a torrid pace.
Said Black Hills' Cammack: "In 2013 I think this will just grow exponentially."