More public natural gas fueling stations are coming to Kansas City

The Kansas City area's one and only public natural gas station is about to get some company.

Kansas City on Thursday introduced an ordinance that would award Clean Energy, a company majority owned by oilman T. Boone Pickens, a 10-year contract to build and operate a station to provide fuel not only for the city's natural gas vehicles but the public's as well. A City Council committee is expected to discuss the contract next week.

The public station would be only the fourth in Missouri and could help break a logjam that has prevented more natural gas vehicles from being used in the area. In addition, the city will get quick-fill dispensers that will allow it to use more of the low-price fuel and reduce its costs as well.

"This is a big deal, and it will be a net benefit for the city," said Sam Swearngin, fleet manager for the city.

Kansas Gas Service in Overland Park currently operates the only public natural gas station. The next closest one is in St. Joseph, which Missouri Gas Energy opened in April.

Now, however, the use of natural gas to fill up motor vehicles is finally getting traction in the Kansas City area. And Clean Energy, the largest provider of natural gas for transportation in North America, is poised to become more visible here after two years of quietly working to gain a foothold.

The company will soon begin construction on two area natural gas stations that will be part of a national network to refuel long-haul trucks. The stations will be finished later this year.

Clean Energy will also provide fuel for Lee's Summit school buses, and that facility will also be open to the public when it opens this fall.

In addition, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority on Wednesday picked Clean Energy to fuel the natural gas buses it is adding to its fleet, although the public won't be able to use the buses' filling station.

"We're well underway," said Scott Vazzana, business development manager for Clean Energy, who has an office in the area.

Natural gas prices have plummeted in the U.S. in recent years as more of it is recovered from underground rock formations. Some large fleets are buying the fuel for as little as $1.10 per gasoline-equivalent gallon after a 50-cent federal incentive. The U.S. Department of Energy recently posted the average price for the fuel in the U.S. at $2.10, which is still a deal with gasoline prices at $3.55 a gallon and diesel even higher.

But a natural gas dispenser, along with a compressor and other equipment, can cost as much as $330,000. That makes public stations the easiest option for smaller users.

Craig Bates, founder of Checker and City Cab in Kansas City, bought four taxis last year retrofitted to use natural gas. Only the drivers who lived close to the Kansas Gas station could take advantage of the fuel.

Thanks to the city's plans, Bates said he is considering buying more of the vehicles to replace some of his 135-cab fleet. But while he is pleased, he would still like to see a station closer to midtown and for things to move more quickly.

"It's very good to see the city taking its first baby steps along with us," he said.

Plans call for the Clean Energy station to be at 5300 Municipal Drive near Chouteau Trafficway and the Missouri River. Clean Energy would design, build, operate and maintain the station. The city will receive a nickel for every gallon sold to other customers.

The station, which is expected to open early next year, will have three natural gas dispensers, with each having two hoses. The station will be self-service and each dispenser will have a video presentation providing dispensing instructions. A fill-up will take about the same time as for gasoline or diesel.

The city is a leader nationally with 335 natural gas vehicles, including garbage trucks and the large vans used to transport KCI passengers to and from the airport. It has dispensers at six locations, but none of them are available to the public.

Clean Energy has 400 stations across the country that are a mix of public and private facilities. Vazzana said Kansas City area motorists could expect to see more public stations.

In short, the time for using more natural gas in transportation is here.

"We're finally at the point it is self-sustaining and will grow exponentially," he said.

This article was first published by The Kansas City Star.

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