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Workshop studies alternative fuel source; Panelists describe advantages of CNG

In 20 years, the cars we drive will be much different. Don't expect a scene out of "The Jetsons," but be prepared for cars running on a variety of power sources.

Compressed natural gas is one of the possibilities that could be a game changer.

Thursday, the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority teamed up with National Fuel to host a workshop for area businesses interested in compressed natural gas opportunities for their fleets.

Waste Management no longer buys gasoline or diesel fuel for many of its vehicles, but instead uses CNG. The savings and environmental factors were just too important to ignore, said Barry Carr, Northeast regional sales manager for BAF Technologies and a speaker at the workshop.

Among the advantages that CNG can claim over diesel fuel and gasoline is a significant reduction in environmental emissions. That, and steep savings at the pump. CNG currently sells for as low as $1.01 per gasoline gallon equivalent in the area. Compare that with a recent Buffalo-area average of $3.79 per gallon for gasoline and $4.14 for diesel.

There are 34 natural gas service stations in New York State and 75 more private stations for company fleets. Fifteen additional stations will be built in 2012 alone, according to Carr.

After 25 years in the natural gas business, he said the momentum around the product has never been so encouraging.

"You're seeing [progress] happen nationwide," Carr said, referring to the 1,100 stations in the U.S. "Every major city has [a station], and most of them have more than one. There are three now in Buffalo; Syracuse has three; Rochester has two; Albany has three; New York City has six; and I think there are 15 on Long Island This stuff is finally starting to happen now What it took was $4 a gallon gasoline and diesel fuel."

Carr was one of two speakers at the workshop -- Ronald Gulmi, managing director for Emerald Alternate Energy Solutions, also spoke. Carr talked about how many state and municipal fleets are struggling financially but that they continue to pay the exorbitant prices on gasoline and diesel fuel. He said that if they were to take that money and convert to CNG, it would cover the cost and make a huge difference in the environment.

CNG vehicles are significantly more expensive than gasoline and diesel fuel vehicles. The difference between buying a Honda Civic CNG model and a gasoline-powered version can be up to $7,000.

But Carr and Robert Eck, a sales manager for National Fuel, said the difference more than makes up for itself with the almost $2.50 savings on CNG per gas gallon equivalent. Eck predicts that a line of CNG vehicles will be available at local car dealerships in the not-so-distant future.

"Probably about three to five years," Eck said. "Right now we're focusing on fleets and hoping that if enough fleets buy in, they will either build their own station, or third parties come in to support those fleets. Eventually there will be enough infrastructure so you won't have to drive 50 miles to fill up Maybe [there won't be a station] on every corner, but enough for it to work for the personal market."

For those interested in the future of CNG, Carr said there are groups that advocate for natural gas. Clean Communities of WNY is one group that works with fleets, fuel providers, community leaders, and others to reduce petroleum use in transportation.

"We promote all different kinds of fuels: natural gas and hydrogen," said Stephen Carr, coordinator for Clean Communities of WNY (no relation to Barry Carr). "Some of these things are far away, but that's what we're building towards, to be completely off petroleum Hydrogen cars are probably 15 to 20 years away."