Natural gas is cheap and plentiful, and last year comprised close to 80 percent of the fuel Florida Power & Light Co. used to produce electricity.
So why aren’t we pumping natural gas, which costs more than $1 a gallon less than gasoline and is also cleaner, into our vehicles?
A few forward-thinking South Florida residents are. Joseph Caruso, an instructor at Florida Atlantic University, is one of the 100 or so Floridians who drives a car that runs on natural gas. Some of those are dual-fuel vehicles that can use both gasoline and natural gas. The Boca Raton resident pumps compressed natural gas, known as CNG, into his Honda Civic at Wise Gas in Pompano Beach.
“I teach biology. Unlike those who teach the virtues of conservation and drive a Ford Explorer home, I believe you should actually live it,” said Caruso, 57, who purchased a used 2001 model for $10,000.
The only catch is that he can’t drive the Civic around the state because there are not enough CNG stations yet.
“I am afraid to go much further than West Palm Beach. When you have a dedicated car, you have to have natural gas,” Caruso said. “I fill up about once a week. My monthly gas bill is in the $20 to $40 range.”
CNG poses a chicken or the egg-type question. Which comes first, vehicles or stations? Without enough vehicles, there’s not sufficient demand for the fuel. But without a station nearby and places to fill up when they’re traveling, most people won’t buy a vehicle.
While there are no CNG stations open to the public in Palm Beach County, there are 14 public stations around the state and more are coming. At least three are slated to open in Palm Beach County in 2014.
In all, Florida has 41 CNG stations, most of which are privately owned and serve truck or bus fleets. For heavy trucks and other vehicles which normally use diesel fuel, the savings are great, with diesel fuel running about $3.90 a gallon compared to the national average of CNG at $2.11 a gallon.
Industry experts are predicting CNG vehicle owners will be able to find plenty of stations by the end of next year. Typically, it costs $1 million to $3 million to build a station, depending on land costs, size and other factors.
Eric Criss, president of the Beer Industry of Florida and chairman of the Florida Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition, said demand for CNG heavy-duty trucks is mushrooming.
“Our beer distributors looked at this and said there is an opportunity here if we can get the natural gas fuel rather than the diesel fuel,” Criss said.
A $30 million state rebate program the Legislature passed in May is an added incentive. It will provide up to $25,000 per vehicle and $250,000 per applicant for private or public fleets which purchase a natural gas vehicle or convert one.
The incentives cut the payback time to recoup the cost of a more expensive CNG truck from three years to one and a half years, Criss said.
In addition, there is a five-year tax free holiday on CNG, liquefied natural gas and propane auto gas until 2019.
Wise Gas’ business development manager Jeff Greene said about 57 individuals and 19 fleet vehicles are using the company’s two stations in Broward County. The company has stations planned in Orlando and Jacksonville and is working on several other deals.
Wise Gas, which opened the state’s first public CNG station in July 2010, is also looking to build a station in Riviera Beach in 2014. It has a commitment from a landowner, and is working with area fleet owners to ensure the station will have enough business.
A Florida Public Utilities unregulated affiliate called Grove Energy and Chicago-based Trillium CNG also plan to build stations in Palm Beach County next year.
Florida Public Utilities wants to sell its operations center on Sapodilla Avenue in downtown West Palm Beach, and move it to a location that would be suitable for a CNG station, said FPU president Jeff Householder.
If all goes well, the station could open in 2014.
“The economics are still tricky on this. Construction is not inexpensive,” Householder said.
With the price spread between gasoline and natural gas running as much as $1.38 a gallon this past week, it makes economic sense to push CNG.
“Natural gas is expected to stay low. It is a matter of getting the technology into the vehicles,” Householder said.
This year FPU’s parent company, Chesapeake Energy, formed Grove Energy, a subsidiary which focuses on developing CNG stations.
“CNG is really going to happen,” said Bill Hancock, Grove Energy’s assistant vice president. “There are a lot of benefits and almost no drawbacks. The only thing that is a drawback is that you have to have momentum at the vehicle level.”
The momentum has come from the waste industry and other businesses which require large trucks. Since 2008, more than 50 percent of orders for new trash trucks are CNG vehicles, Hancock said.
Anddrikk Frazier, Trillim CNG business developer for the Southeast region, said the company has 60 stations around the country, and by 2015, will have another 101 stations, and is working on a Palm Beach County location.
Trillium is opening a station in Tampa in mid-October and one in Orlando in November. By the end of 2014, the company will have six stations from Jacksonville to Southeast Florida.
“You will be able to get around the state of Florida on CNG by the end of next year,” Frazier said.
J.J. Taylor Distributing Florida, a major beer distributor headquartered in Jupiter, has 43 natural gas trucks in its fleet of 167. Earlier this year, the new trucks went into service in the Tampa area where it has a private station, said Mike Snow, fleet manager. It plans to open a public station in Fort Myers in February.
The trucks cost $35,000 more than their diesel counterparts. The cost of CNG is less than half that of diesel. It takes roughly two years to recover the extra initial cost, depending on how much fuel you burn, Snow said.
“The more you use, the more you save,” Snow said.
When the company bought its first CNG trucks, there was no state incentive, but 10 night transport trucks on order this year will qualify for the rebate, Snow said. By 2017 the company plans to convert 100 percent of its Florida fleet to CNG.
“We are terribly happy to see it,” Snow said.
There’s growing interest from those outside the trucking industry, such as agricultural producers.
U.S. Sugar Co. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said the company which harvests sugar cane in Palm Beach, Hendry and Glades counties is in the midst of testing converted natural gas tractors.
“If the economics make sense we then will consider conversion in other agriculture equipment,” Sanchez said.
While Florida’s CNG fueling infrastructure is behind that of other states, Florida has the capability to catch up quickly, Grove Energy’s Hancock said.
“We don’t have to do much marketing. People are finding us,” Hancock said. “They are very interested.”
CNG is an alternative to gasoline that’s made by compressing natural gas to less than 1 percent of its volume at standard atmospheric pressure. Consisting mostly of methane, CNG is odorless, colorless and tasteless. It’s drawn from domestically drilled natural gas wells or in conjunction with crude oil production.
Natural gas powers more than 12 million vehicles worldwide on the road today. Only about 250,000 of these are being used in the U.S. The average growth rate in the U.S. shows a 3.7 percent increase per year since 2000, as contrasted with a booming global growth rate of 30.6 percent per year.
Expanding the numbers of CNG fueling stations would allow for the increase of CNG vehicles on U.S. roads. There are 12,000 around the world, yet the U.S. claims about 500 public stations. New technologies and greater demand mean that the number of new stations is climbing rapidly.
Want to fuel your vehicle with natural gas?
Palm Beach County has no compressed natural gas stations, but at least three are slated to be open by the end of 2014.
Motorists who don’t live close to a CNG station can have a natural gas pump known as a Phill Unit installed in a garage or outdoor area. The cost is about $6,000 and works only if you have natural gas service at the house already.
Many standard vehicles can be converted to run on both natural gas and gasoline. That option can cost $3,000 to $12,000. Typically, certified installers will only perform a CNG conversion on new or nearly new vehicles. CNG conversion kits must meet stringent Environmental Protection Agency standards.
The CNG Honda Civic has been on the market since 1998, and is the nation’s only natural gas passenger car manufactured new, although many cars can be converted to run on natural gas. The 2012 model costs $26,305. But used CNG vehicles can be purchased on eBay for much less.
Numerous manufacturers offer factory-built natural gas trucks, step-vans, transit buses and school buses. There are fewer options for consumers who need light-duty cars, vans and pickup trucks — but the market is starting to turn. The Civic has been joined in the market by CNG versions of the Chevrolet Silverado 2500, Dodge Ram 2500 CNG and Ford F-250 pickups, as well as Chevy Savana vans and Ford Transit and Transit Connect vans. More options are coming soon.
Sources: CNGNow, Wise Gas