When Don Bricker, a project manager for Intel Corp., drives past a gasoline station, he sympathizes for the folks who are pumping fuel that is rising in price by 5 cents a gallon every few days.
He doesn’t have to worry about that because he runs four vehicles on natural gas, which costs just $1.15 a gallon.
But he feels their pain because he still has an SUV that runs on unleaded gasoline.
“It’s crossed my mind to convert that, too,” he said.
Bricker thinks natural gas, a fuel found in relative abundance in the United States, could be part of the solution to the nation’s energy problems.
“I hope this is a stepping stone to hydrogen,” he said. “There are alternatives that definitely can decrease our reliance on imported foreign oil, so we’re not sending our dollars to places that are not exactly friendly to us.”
But there are drawbacks to natural gas. With only a handful of refueling stations available to the public, natural gas isn’t very practical for cross-country driving. But for in-town transportation, an at-home fueling device called the FuelMaker makes it easy to keep the tank full.
Made by Toronto-based FuelMaker Corp., the device is connected to the residential gas meter and compresses the gas from one-quarter pound per square inch, which is the typical residential pressure, to 3,600 pounds per square inch for storage in the vehicle. The device will slowly fill up the vehicle overnight.
Dave Clement, owner of CNG Services of Arizona, which is the state distributor of the FuelMaker, said about 300 have been sold statewide. But with the rapid runup in gasoline prices of the past few months, interest is increasing.
“We’ve been installing about one a week,” he said, about double the previous pace. “Calls always go up or down depending on the price of unleaded.”
The cost of FuelMakers is $7,000 for a unit that pumps at the rate of one gallon an hour or $3,500 for a smaller unit called a Phill that pumps at half a gallon per hour. Cheaper used units also are available.
There’s also the cost of converting a vehicle to run on natural gas, but with the cheaper price of the fuel, the initial costs can be offset in a few years, Clement figures.
Federal tax credits are available to reduce the cost, but there are only a few state incentives in the wake of the alt-fuels disaster of 2001, when a poorly written Arizona law provided generous tax breaks for converting vehicles to run on alternative fuel even if the consumer continued to use gasoline. In such conversions, vehicles typically can run on both fuels.
For that and other reasons, natural gas has failed to take off as a transportation fuel locally or nationally except in fleets. In fact, General Motors and Ford are discontinuing the production of natural gas cars as they concentrate on ethanol and hybrids.
The only new car still available that is dedicated to running on natural gas is the Honda Civic GX. That means many people who want to use natural gas convert an existing gasoline car or buy a used vehicle that’s already converted.