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An alternative to gasoline

by Paul Leakan

STAFF WRITER

The price of gasoline continues to skyrocket, and some have predicted that it could climb even higher by early summer.

But some area businesses and governmental entities have found a way to avert the pricing pinch at the pumps -- buying or converting vehicles that run on natural gas.

West Virginia has more than 1,500 natural gas vehicles on the road, according to the West Virginia Natural Gas Vehicle Coalition.

More and more area businesses have equipped their vehicles to run on natural gas -- a trend that some believe may continue.

Among the reasons for the natural gas surge: Lower emissions, lower costs and tax incentives.

Natural gas is about 50 cents less than gasoline per equivalent gallon.

The state of West Virginia also offers tax incentives to encourage residents to switch over to convert their vehicles to natural gas, including a 100 percent tax credit for those who license their natural gas vehicles in the state and a $2,000 deduction on federal income taxes.

While few residents have natural gas vehicles, some businesses have purchased a whole fleet of vehicles that burn the fuel.

Dr. Nigel Clark, a professor at West Virginia University's school of engineering, said that many larger cities around the country are moving toward natural gas trucks and buses.

Natural gas fueling stations are strategically located in 26 locations throughout West Virginia.

Clark, however, believes nationwide access to natural gas pumps may continue to discourage people from purchasing natural gas vehicles for their personal use.

"Right now, most of the use is for (large) fleets that are used for the short-range and return to the same place everyday," he said.

Lee Leard, product manager for natural gas vehicles for Dominion/Hope Gas in Cleveland, Ohio, agreed.

"It's primarily a fleet fuel in many locations," he said. "However, in selected states we are beginning to see a lot of small fleets and individuals."

Clark believes more and more businesses and governmental entities will make the switch in the coming years.

But while environmentalists and others have called for replacing or complimenting gasoline with alternative fuels, the actual usage of natural gas has been somewhat spotty.

Hope Gas has hundreds of natural gas vehicles in their fleet.

Also, West Virginia University has had numerous natural gas vehicles in use at its physical plant for the past few years.

The U.S. Postal Service has 7,000 natural gas delivery trucks, representing the largest fleet of natural gas vehicles in the nation.

The United Parcel Service has around 600 natural gas vehicles.

It costs roughly $3,500 to $4,500 to have a vehicle converted to burn natural gas, Leard said.

But several major auto makers have begun offering cars that run on the fuel, including Honda, Toyota and Ford.

While more of those vehicles are likely to hit the roads, Clark believes gasoline will remain king in the unforeseeable future.

"The gasoline structure is so pervasive," he said. "It's just established and so common."

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