Austin shop leading way in auto conversion to natural gas

On October 8, 2012 by HCZimmerman

By Asher Price

American-Statesman Staff

A sleepy-seeming auto mechanics’ shop near the corner of 49th Street and Interstate 35 just may be a window into the future of national auto transportation.

Here, as a British Labrador slipped beneath a chassis to hide from the sun, a couple of mechanics tinkered under the open hood of a shiny red pickup. They were converting the vehicle, as they have hundreds of others, from running on conventional gasoline to compressed natural gas.

The shop, called CleanFuel Conversions, is owned by Ronnie Oldham, a wiry Oklahoma expatriate who drives a white Chevy Silverado with a bumper sticker that says, “I pay half for gas.”

Natural gas, long known for its price volatility, has recently enjoyed consistently low prices as a drilling boom across Texas and other parts of the U.S. has driven up supply. Filling up at one of two Austin filling stations that offer natural gas costs about $1.90 a gallon, according to CNGprices.com, a site that tracks and promotes retail natural gas.

Natural gas can be used in all sorts of ways — to power electricity plants, for example, and to provide fuel for home stoves. But the transportation sector has long ignored natural gas — oil’s redheaded stepchild — despite efforts by billionaire T. Boone Pickens and other gas mavens to encourage its adoption.

Austin’s Oldham, in his small way, is trying to change that, car by car.

Retail natural gas faces two major challenges: the manufacture of automobiles that can run on the stuff and filling stations that supply it.

Oldham’s not hanging around for car companies to start making natural gas vehicles.

“To heck with waiting,” he says. “We’re going to move ahead rather than waiting for some policy to take place.”

His shop, he says, likely is the only one in Austin that will convert vehicles so they can run on natural gas. The conversion, which costs $8,000 to $12,000 a vehicle, involves installing a natural gas tank, usually made of solid steel or fiberglass, and adding new fuel injectors, as well as a switch that allows drivers to toggle between running on gasoline and natural gas.

So far Oldham has converted about 300 vehicles at his Austin shop, including commercial vehicles for Clarke Kent Plumbing and Office Depot.

Natural gas burns more cleanly than conventional gasoline or diesel because of its lower carbon content, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The gap in tailpipe emissions between conventional fuels and natural gas has shrunk, however, as regulations have strengthened.

The state should do more to lay the groundwork for consumer transportation use of natural gas, Oldham says.

In January, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality announced it would grant as much as $4.5 million to develop a network of natural gas vehicle-fueling stations to build a foundation for a natural gas vehicle market in Texas.

The commission also is offering $18 million in grants to encourage businesses, governmental agencies and individuals to replace their gas-powered vehicles with natural-gas-powered ones.

In all, Texas has only 24 gas stations that offer compressed natural gas for filling up, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. By comparison, Oklahoma, home to natural gas powerhouse Chesapeake Energy, has 63 stations that offer compressed natural gas.

“Oklahoma is kicking our butt,” says Oldham, who also owns a natural gas conversion station in the Sooner State.

Oldham also has installed a $5,000 natural gas pump for his car at his house. His gas, supplied by Texas Gas Service, costs about 75 cents a gallon, as opposed to the $1.90 or so drivers have to pay for natural gas at stations.

The long-term prospects of natural gas vehicles appear rosy — at least as long as prices remain low.

At a meeting of the Society of Automotive Analysts in Michigan in September, General Motors chief economist Mustafa Mohatarem said that gas extraction innovation will change the car industry, according to a report in the Detroit Free-Press. General Motors has announced plans to sell natural-gas powered versions of its pickup trucks by the end of this year.

“I’d make a bet it’s the next big transportation fuel,” Mohatarem reportedly said. “The price is so much lower than gasoline — people will find a way to use it.”

 

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