Earlier this year, Piedmont Natural Gas generously donated a bi-fuel van, meaning it runs on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) and gasoline, to the Sustainable America fleet. Piedmont Natural Gas is a natural gas provider in Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina and also owns and operates many of the natural gas stations in that area. We were thrilled to have the 2002 Chevy 2500 Express Passenger Van to use in our alternative fuel programming and educational outreach, but first we had to drive it from Charlotte, N.C., back to our headquarters in Stamford, Conn.
Some of the biggest challenges keeping drivers from switching from petroleum to CNG are infrastructure and range, something I learned firsthand on my trip to pick up the van. CNG is a readily available alternative to petroleum, and depending on the vehicle, offers a significant reduction in emissions despite being a fossil fuel. As a transportation fuel, CNG use has increased steadily since the early 2000s due to government incentives, competitive pricing and increased supply, but it still only accounts for about 3 percent of total energy consumption in the U.S. transportation sector.
Prior to my trip, I mapped out CNG stations along my route in an attempt to use CNG as much as possible. (I used cngnow.com and the Alternative Fuels Data Center’s Alternative Fueling Station Locator). Stations looked few and far between in Virginia, but I still marked a couple of places to stop at and fill up along the way.
With my list ready, I flew down to the Piedmont corporate offices in Charlotte to began my CNG vehicle education. A Piedmont technician answered my questions and taught me how to fill up the van. It holds approximately 10 GGEs of CNG, which is normal for most passenger vehicles; whereas heavy-duty vehicles like garbage trucks have 90-GGE tanks. Even with this limited fuel capacity, the van gets up to 130 miles on a full tank of CNG. When empty, it automatically switches over to the gasoline tank. I was told I might hear some sounds when it switched, but to expect the van to continue on with no interruption.
Fueling up with CNG took a little more effort than I am used to when refueling a vehicle, but it was certainly manageable. The CNG hose is heavier and a not as easy to move around as a gasoline hose, and you need to know which size hose is right for your vehicle. Once the nozzle is inserted, a lever is flipped to create a seal and prevent leaking. The pump does an initial blast into the tank to ensure there are no leaks and then fills up quickly. I purchased 7.245 GGEs of CNG at the price of $2.0980 each and then set off for Connecticut.
The van drove just like our hybrid electric van (the only other van I’ve driven). But just over the Virginia border, the van began changing over to the gas tank. It happened about 115 miles into my trip, slightly earlier than expected. The van made a couple of clunking noises that I figured were normal, but then my speed began to drop and my power steering failed so I decided to get off the road. I pulled over, shut the engine down, and tried restarting. Ultimately my attempts failed. Eventually a Virginia DOT truck parked behind me and called a tow truck to out. I headed down the mountain to Lester’s Transmission where the issue was diagnosed and resolved. I was pleased to find out that the problem was not directly related to the van being a bi-fuel vehicle but rather an old distributor cap that popped off due to the pressure of switching over while going uphill, amongst a few other factors.
Despite the inconvenience, I learned that mechanics have to work around different components when working on a CNG van. (I also discovered that all of the DOT trucks in Virginia have solar panels to power their auxiliary equipment, such as flashing direction arrows, to reduce idling. Cool!)
With this delay, I decided to hold off on refilling the CNG tank until I was closer to home. The next day in New Jersey, I picked one of the stations nearby that accommodated my vehicle size. I ended up at a station next to a Waste Management truck yard and quickly discovered that the station only serviced heavy-duty vehicles. I took it as a learning experience and decided to just get home using the gasoline tank as I had experience my fill of mishaps. The rest of the journey went well and the van is currently getting tricked out by our friends at eNow (more on that later).
My takeaway from this adventure is the importance of diligent planning before making any trip using CNG, specifically for passenger vehicles. Although, the maps provide detailed information on individual stations, I strongly recommend calling ahead of time. Since the overwhelming majority of CNG vehicles make up transportation fleets, it is understandable that most of the existing infrastructure caters to those drivers. While you can have a refueling station installed in your home garage through your natural gas line, they can cost over $4,000. Sustained capital investments, along with market demand, are needed to allow for and justify the expansion of natural gas infrastructure, thus allowing individual drivers greater access and reliability on CNG. We’ve been looking at investing in better technologies that have the ability to increase the range and reduce the weight of CNG tanks, which could help alleviate some of the range anxiety that CNG drivers have to deal with.
I am beyond grateful to everyone at Piedmont who helped me out when the vehicle stalled, to Virginia DOT for coming to the rescue and Lester at Lester’s Transmission for fixing me up quickly. Soon, we’ll pick the van up from eNow in Rhode Island and drive it to Connecticut, hopefully with greater success in utilizing its CNG capabilities!
Quick Facts About CNG:
• FedEx, UPS, AT&T and Waste Management operate thousands of trucks using CNG. Waste Management has the largest CNG fleet in the country.
• There are over 156,000 gas stations in America and only about 800 public CNG stations. This number nearly doubles when you include private stations.
• While much of the CNG in use today is made from fossil fuels, it can also be made from organic matter, like food waste, farm waste, sewage and landfill gas. Renewable natural gas (RNG), as it’s called, can be blended in unlimited quantities with other natural gas, and emits less greenhouse gasses.
Sustainable America Administrative Assistant