Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

July 13, 2013

Business eyes natural gas vehicle possibilities

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

— "If you build it, they will come," was the promise to an Iowa farmer in the baseball classic field of dreams. But Don Demko, owner of Eco Travel Plaza in Crossville, is looking for a bit more reassurance before he continues with a plan to invest in a retail refueling station for natural gas vehicles.

"Our goal is to save people money," Demko explained. "There's an environmental benefit, but natural gas is better for everything — emissions, less dependence on foreign oil. I want to get the word out to let me know if you're interested in natural gas vehicles."

Part of that effort was a natural gas vehicle consortium held June 27 at Cumberland Mountatin State Park, hosted by Middle Tennessee Natural Gas, East Tennessee Clean Fuels and Eco Travel Plaza.

Natural gas is growing as a source of fuel for vehicles. Though natural gas is also a fossil fuel, there's ample domestic supply, experts say.

Jonathan Overly, executive director with East Tennessee Clean Fuels, said, "It reduces pollution and it's an American fuel with American jobs. It also saves the driver money."

As a vehicle fuel, natural gas offers comparable horsepower, acceleration and cruise speeds to gasoline or diesel fuel at a much lower cost, saving roughly $1.50 a gallon equivalent. Natural gas has lower particulate emissions and converted vehicles often need less frequent maintenance because the fuel burns more cleanly than gasoline.

Technology has also advanced to allow vehicles to run on both natural gas and gasoline, which can extend a vehicle's range of travel beyond areas with refueling infrastructure.

Some manufacturers are already offering natural gas models, but most vehicles can be converted to use natural gas fuel. In many cases, it means sacrificing some of the storage space in a car, because the vehicle will need larger tanks to hold the natural gas fuel.

But one thing holding consumers back from changing to natural gas vehicles is the lack of infrastructure support for the fuel source. In Tennessee, there are only two public refueling stations, one in Memphis and one in Athens, TN.

Middle Tennessee Natural Gas has already put one natural gas vehicle in service for meter reading, and it is refueled overnight. Demko is considering a refueling station that would be able to refill natural gas tanks in about the same amount of time it takes to refill a regular gasoline tank or diesel tank.

"You have to have that in a retail setting," Demko said. "We're interested in local fleets interested in converting to natural gas."

Utility companies, with their high mileage fleets, are among the first in the area converting to the fuel. Many of those utility companies are suppliers of natural gas, as well, meaning they have a ready source.

Because of the cost of converting can be several thousands of dollars, those who travel extensively and rack up miles quickly have the most to gain from the conversion and the best ability to offer a quicker payback to early adopters. The savings in fuel costs can help some companies be more competitive and gain additional business, as well, Demko said.

"They are able to shave one or two cents a mile off their costs on bids," Demko said. "That helps them grow their business and build jobs."

Crossville could offer a prime spot for compressed natural gas refueling and offer service to fleets out of both Nashville and Knoxville that have dedicated runs along that corridor of Interstate 40.

To learn more about natural gas vehicles, or to let Demko know you're interested in converting vehicles to use the fuel, email hime at don@ecotravelplaza.com. You may also email Overly at jgoverly@utk.edu or Matt Stennett with MTNG.