by Luke Jones
Posted 1/6/2014 12:00 am
Updated 8 months ago
Early in February, the city of Little Rock is scheduled to open the seventh compressed natural gas station in Arkansas that is available for public use.
Compressed natural gas has been used for vehicles for years, but it’s now becoming more viable with its low price — CNGPrices.com shows Arkansas’ stations selling the fuel at the equivalent of about $1.50 per gallon of gasoline — and with government incentives available for companies considering making the change.
The U.S. Department of Energy lists 644 public stations in the nation, with many states having just a handful (Alaska, Delaware and Vermont each have a single station) and others having dozens (New York has 36, Utah 43 and California 142).
Arkansas has had public CNG stations for just a few years — a station owned by Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. was opened in 2011. (See slideshow.) Most of the stations are owned by gas companies or municipalities.
Their clients tend to be the companies’ or cities’ own vehicles, but some were built with the idea that other customers would be able to use them as well.
“The city of Little Rock built their station primarily for themselves, but I know they have a lot of interest from companies like AT&T who made a commitment to convert a certain amount of their vehicles,” said Mitchell Simpson, outreach and training manager at the Arkansas Energy Office.
Of the public stations, one is intended solely for mass consumer use: Satterfield Oil Corp.’s facility on Oak Street in Conway. Gov. Mike Beebe attended that station’s opening in September.
“They at one point were going to service Southwestern Energy and some other fleets,” Simpson said. “But Southwestern ended up developing their own station to service their own fleets instead.”
Simpson said Frito-Lay’s station in Jonesboro also services some of the other manufacturing companies in the town.
There are three or four privately owned CNG stations, Simpson said, but the Energy Office doesn’t monitor them.
CNG in Little Rock
Little Rock’s forthcoming station, at 823 E. Ninth St. near Interstate 30, is mainly intended to service the city’s fleet of CNG-enabled vehicles.
Wendell Jones, director of fleet services for Little Rock, said the station will have a 200-horsepower compressor with one dispenser to handle smaller vehicles and a nozzle for 18-wheelers. CenterPoint Energy is supplying the CNG for the city, but Jones said the city will always be on the lookout for competitive prices from other gas companies.
The city has been using CNG for around a decade, Jones said, but its station was a slow-fill model. At that location, it would take all night to fill a regular car. The new station should be tremendously faster.
“On a normal date with normal temperatures, it should be able to fill up a car or vehicle within five minutes,” Jones said.
The station cost around $1.3 million. Jones said $400,000 of that went toward purchasing the land.
“It was really a good site, a good location for the station,” Jones said. “It’ll have easy accessibility on and off the freeway. That was one of the main factors when we decided to purchase that particular piece of property.”
The rest of the cost went toward work on the site and purchasing equipment.
The funding came from several sources: a $235,000 grant from the Arkansas Energy Office, a $100,000 grant from Southwestern Energy and the rest from the city of Little Rock’s budget.
Jones said the city wanted to build the station both for environmental and practical reasons.
“The city is certainly always concerned about our environment,” Jones said. “And certainly there would be less dependency on foreign fuel, but just as important as that is the reduced fuel bill.”
Also, the city’s fleet of CNG vehicles is growing, Jones said.
“Right now, we have seven vehicles,” he said. “This year we’ll begin to purchase or replace vehicles, and in that process we will be adding more CNG vehicles to our fleet.”
Departments currently using CNG vehicles include Fleet Services, Planning & Development and Public Works. Jones said the city plans to add more CNG-enabled vehicles to Public Works and Planning & Development. Housing & Neighborhood Programs will be getting CNG vehicles eventually, he added.
Central Arkansas Transit Authority also has plans for CNG conversion, but neither Little Rock’s station nor the existing North Little Rock one would be compatible with CATA’s buses.
When open, the CNG portion of the station will be available to anyone with a CNG-enabled vehicle. The station will also have regular gasoline and diesel fuel pumps, but Jones said these will be available only to state and federal agencies.
The city plans to market the availability of the station, Jones said. The Design Group of Little Rock is in charge of that process; Renee Tyler, coordinator of fleet special programs, said the city is spending $25,000 on the campaign.
“It’s been streamlined,” she said of the campaign. “We’re hoping to get some more money in 2014 and we’ve also got some sponsorship interests, so the budget may increase.”
In the future, Jones said, the city would like to add a second compressor and dispenser, as well as potentially construct a charging station for electric vehicles.
The state has plans to encourage more companies and cities to build CNG stations and convert their vehicles. The state itself owns as many as 150 known CNG-converted vehicles, with more that were purchased with CNG fuel options already installed.
Simpson, at the Energy Office, said Arkansas Act 532, passed in the 2013 legislative session, authorized the office to spend up to $2.4 million in incentives for building stations that supply CNG and other gaseous fuels like liquid natural gas or liquid petroleum gas.
The incentives come in the form of rebates returning 75 percent of a CNG station’s development costs or $400,000, whichever is lower, Simpson said.
But the window of opportunity is short. “Those rebates we just launched on Dec. 5,” Simpson said. “The application period will run until Jan. 24 of .”
Starting in the first quarter of 2014, Act 532 will also allow rebates for converting vehicles for CNG use. To that end, the state will offer a rebate of 50 percent of conversion cost or $4,500.
To qualify for the rebate vehicles must have been manufactured in 2012 or later. Conversion costs range from $5,000 to $15,000.
Jones said converting vehicles in Little Rock’s fleet generally costs between $8,500 and $9,000. He said the city recently purchased two CNG-enabled Honda Civics for $24,500 each.
Jones said Little Rock’s station is a good investment and he hopes other groups will continue building the state’s network.
“I think it’s something that all cities and the federal government should be focusing on, and that is how we can reduce our dependencies on foreign oil,” Jones said. “At the same time we can have a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids. I think this is the way to go.”