- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Drivers of cars and trucks powered by compressed natural gas could travel across Nebraska if fueling stations open next year as planned.

The expected stations in North Platte would close a major gap on Interstate 80 and allow more vehicles to make the trip from Omaha and Lincoln to fueling stops in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Denver.

One project is moving forward with a $590,000 grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, a state agency that uses Nebraska Lottery money and interest for environmental projects. Two companies partnered with North Platte city officials last year to apply for the money, which would help build the station and convert city vehicles so they could use compressed natural gas.

The city has since postponed its conversion, but an executive with Lincoln-based Stirk Compressed Natural Gas said his company still plans to begin construction on the station by June 30. Another firm, California-based Clean Energy Fuels, was granted approval in 2012 for a liquid natural gas refueling facility at a North Platte truck stop. Company spokesman Jason Johnston said the station is scheduled to open in February.

“It’s on the cusp of becoming mainstream,” said Kirk McClymont, a senior manager at the Lincoln-based Stirk Compressed Natural Gas.



Compressed natural gas burns cleaner and quieter than diesel, costs less and frequently allows engines to run with less maintenance. Its price is also more stable because of a steady supply from North American shale formations. City buses, garbage trucks and fire trucks around the country are converting as local governments come under pressure to reduce carbon emissions.

But switching from a traditional diesel truck can cost tens of thousands of dollars. New trucks that run on compressed natural gas may cost up to $45,000 more than traditional diesel-powered models, McClymont said. Industry experts say converting a fleet makes the most financial sense when diesel prices are high, because companies recover their investments faster through savings when the cost difference between natural gas and diesel is large.

The lack of stations in western Nebraska makes it difficult for compressed natural gas vehicles to cross the state, McClymont said.

McClymont said some natural gas bus manufacturers have adapted by towing their buses across the state or bypassing Nebraska altogether. Many westbound vehicles opt to travel farther south through Oklahoma, which has an abundance of stations.

McClymont said his company chose North Platte because it sits roughly halfway between Omaha and Denver - both cities with natural gas refueling stations.

The North Platte station could also help natural gas trucks make deliveries in areas far from the interstate.

McClymont, whose company owns a compressed natural gas semi, said the company previously had no way to haul loads from Lincoln to western Kansas because the truck didn’t carry enough fuel for the round trip. A new station set to open in Garden City, Kansas, this month will alleviate the problem.

“It’s the old chicken or the egg deal,” he said. “Do you build a station and get everyone to convert to natural gas, or does everyone convert and then you build a station?”

Nebraska already has compressed natural gas stations in Omaha, Lincoln, Columbus and Plattsmouth, but no options in the western part of the state, said Mark Brohman, executive director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust. Brohman said the trust awarded the grant to promote the cleaner-burning fuel.

“There’s kind of a dead zone in Nebraska,” he said. “Oklahoma and Texas use a lot of compressed natural gas, but up here it’s not as prevalent.”

Nebraska is trailing states such as Oklahoma because it hasn’t offered as many tax incentives to help overcome the initial conversion costs and build new stations, said Larry Johnson, president of the Nebraska Trucking Association.

Johnson said his members are interested in the new technology, but the cost of natural gas engines hasn’t yet dropped enough for it to make financial sense. The recent decline in diesel prices also slowed the momentum, although Johnson said he was confident prices would rise again.

“It’s really important to make sure we don’t get lulled into complacency while other states are developing their infrastructure,” he said.

Nebraska lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts approved a new state rebate program in May to reduce vehicle conversion costs. The law by former state Sen. Jeremy Nordquist provides a rebate of up to $4,500 for equipment that allows vehicles to run on compressed natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells or other alternatives.

Last year, Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler announced the city would transition from diesel-powered buses to ones powered by compressed natural gas. The buses were expected to save the city about $1.3 million over their 15-year lifetimes because of reduced maintenance and fuel costs.

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