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Natural gas gains popularity

Gregory Crofton
Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily Tribune Jeff Stone fills a tank in the bed of his pickup with compressed natural gas.
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Jeff Stone celebrated Earth Day by starting his pickup truck. It’s powered by natural gas, which means it produces up to 80 percent less emissions than a vehicle that runs on gasoline or diesel fuel.

If Stone has to take a long road trip and can’t find some place to fill up, he flicks a switch under the car stereo that allows his truck to run on gasoline.

But he doesn’t have to worry about finding natural gas to pump in South Lake Tahoe. For the past year a state-of-the art fueling station has been available in the parking lot of Lake Tahoe Airport.

Stone, who worked in the compressed natural gas business for 13 years, has special access to the station because he’s in charge of maintaining it.

Even though he’s not as involved in the industry as he once was, he remains a staunch advocate of natural gas because its cheaper – a gallon equivalent at the airport costs $1.84 – and good for the environment.

“I wish more people did it,” Stone, 48, said. “This thing going on in the U.S. with SUVs to me is nuts. I think we’re at war right now in Iraq because of contracts Bush has and the Saudis have. We’re so dependent on oil and we don’t need to be.”

If Stone decides to fill up by tapping the gas line that leads from the street to his heat his home, it only cost him about $1 for the amount of natural gas equivalent to a gallon of gasoline.

But fueling up at home takes a lot longer. Natural gas has to be compressed so it’s dense enough to be burned. The compression system Stone has in his driveway takes a lot longer to operate than the one at the airport.

Stone said his truck’s performance on natural gas is about the same as it is on gasoline. The engine takes a second longer to start and gets slightly less mileage because it’s set to run on gasoline and natural gas.

To convert an engine costs about $5,000, but General Motors and Honda both sell vehicles that are factory ready for natural gas.

Stone admits natural gas engines aren’t for everyone. It fits best, he said, in the transit industry – vehicles that travel the same road each day and are often large enough to accommodate the pressurized cylinders that contain the gas.

Stone’s tank is in the bed of his pickup. It’s hidden and protected by a black metal box, but it doesn’t need to be. If something pierced the cylinder it wouldn’t explode because natural gas is lighter than air and pressure released from the tank would not allow oxygen inside.

Any technology that acts as an alternative to mainstream industry is bound to present certain challenges, but, according to Stone, the value of burning natural gas in place of gasoline is apparent when you look at the numbers.

Stone says 88 percent of the energy contained in natural gas makes it to his engine. When he burns gasoline, only 30 percent of the energy source gets used to turns his tires. The other 70 percent is spent in the refining process and what it costs to transport gasoline to a pump.

The natural gas fueling station at the airport is open to the public, but it’s mostly used by South Shore public agencies. BlueGo, the U.S. Forest Service, El Dorado County and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency all have vehicles that run on natural gas.

BlueGo, South Shore’s transit system, is the biggest burner of it with five of its 37 vehicles running on natural gas.

“The plan is every time a (BlueGo) vehicle needs to be replaced, it will be replaced with a natural gas vehicle,” said Julie Regan, TRPA communications director. “We’re moving completely in the direction of having a cleaner burning public transit system.”

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com


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