An interview with Bob Strickland, Manager of Natural Gas Transportation at Alagasco
Automotive transportation is a way of life in America. In fact, Americans spend about $1 billion each day on foreign oil. One billion dollars! Every day!
Whether transporting people or goods across town or across the country, most of our vehicles operate primarily on foreign oil that could be replaced by clean, domestic natural gas. But is America ready for Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs)?
We sat down with Bob Strickland, Manager of Natural Gas Transportation at Alagasco and an expert on the subject. With 30 years of experience in the business, Bob has worked on everything from environmental affairs and purchasing to residential, commercial, and industrial marketing of natural gas. Today his primary focus is on Natural Gas Vehicles. He currently serves on the boards of NGVAmerica and the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition, is chairman of the Southeastern States NGV Corridor Committee, serves on the Drive Natural Gas Initiative infrastructure, legislative, marketing and education and original equipment manufacturing vehicle production committees. And he actively promotes NGVs in order to help businesses and consumers reduce vehicle costs and emissions.
Q: Is America ready for natural gas vehicles?
BOB: I wholeheartedly believe in running our country’s vehicles on natural gas for the well being of our citizens, including my three children and eight grandchildren (…number nine is on the way). We need to find ways to reduce our addiction to foreign oil and use our own natural resources in order to ensure energy security for our country. I believe natural gas and natural gas vehicles can play a huge role in addressing these challenges. I’m sure you can tell I’m passionate about NGVs.
Q: What are the benefits?
BOB: There are really seven primary benefits for people to consider.
One, it’s clean. Natural gas is the cleanest commercially available alternative fuel. For example, replacing just one diesel garbage truck with a natural gas garbage truck can reduce emissions equivalent to removing 325 cars from the road.
Two, it’s safe. Natural gas is lighter than air and has a higher ignition temperature, stronger components and stronger tanks than other fuels including gasoline and diesel.
Three, it’s affordable. Right now in the U.S., we are paying more than $3.00 per gallon of gasoline. The price of natural gas ranges from just over $1.00 to around $2.00 per equivalent gallon.
Four, it’s domestic. 98% of the natural gas consumed in the U.S. is produced in North America – 85% from the U.S. itself, and 13% from Canada.
Five, it’s abundant. The U.S. has more natural gas reserves than Saudi Arabia has oil. Currently, 32 of our 50 states produce natural gas, giving us a 120-year supply. Natural gas is even produced in Alabama.
Six, it’s reliable. The technology is proven for use in vehicles, and we already have a nationwide natural gas distribution system in place.
And, seven, it’s good for the economy. Certainly, there will be jobs created around the industry as we produce NGVs and stations. Consider this: In February 2010, the U.S. spent $24.6 billion on imported oil. If we were not burdened by our addiction to foreign oil, think about what we could have done with that money. We could have hired over 364,000 new teachers. We could have funded highway repairs for nearly seven years. We could have built 32,407 new elementary schools.
Q: Are NGVs available to the general consumer right now?
BOB: Right now there are about 120,000 natural gas vehicles in the U.S. There are about 12 million worldwide, and that number is expected to increase to 28.7 million by 2015. But the domestic market is growing. GM offers natural gas vans and will have pickup trucks coming soon. Chrysler/Dodge is scheduled to release a Bi-Fuel Dodge Ram in 2012. Chrysler is working on bringing its natural gas Fiat sedans to the U.S. market. And, Honda produces a natural gas Civic, which is currently the greenest car on the road. Alagasco is talking to a number of vehicle manufacturers, and once we get more natural gas fueling stations built, you’ll see more people getting on board.
Q: How many natural gas stations are there?
BOB: At the end on 2010, there were nearly 1,000 natural gas stations in the U.S., and there are efforts underway to build more. There are five regional corridors where public and private entities are working hard to get stations built near intersections of major interstates and highways: 1) Texas Triangle, 2) Rockies Corridor, 3) Southeastern Corridor, 4) Eastern Corridor, and 5) I-75 Corridor. It’s like a giant puzzle, and we’re trying to put the pieces together. Here in Alabama, if all goes well, we could have as many as 12 public stations by the end of 2012. We are building Alagasco natural gas stations for Alagasco’s fleet, and we will be opening some of those to the public. Other companies will also be adding stations.
Q: Who should own a natural gas vehicle?
BOB: Right now, any business with a fleet can be a good candidate – transit, garbage, laundry supply, and food and beverage trucks are common users of natural gas. There is an upfront cost to either buy or convert to a natural gas fleet, but the fuel costs are considerably lower. That’s why AT&T, UPS, Verizon, Waste Management and others are switching to natural gas – they can save millions on fuel costs.
Q: Why isn’t the U.S. using more NGVs if the savings are so great?
BOB: When oil prices go up, everyone starts looking at alternative fuels. When oil prices drop, people stop looking. Europe runs more on natural gas because oil prices over there are so much higher. High oil prices have driven demand. And, even many of the Middle Eastern countries that supply foreign oil to the U.S. are converting their fleets to natural gas so that they can sell us their oil.
Q: What needs to happen to make the switch to NGVs? Does the U.S. government have a role?
BOB: What we really need is stability and predictability in federal policies so that long-term planning and investment can be efficiently done by the private sector. Federal Tax Credits for NGVs expired at the end of 2010 when the market was starting to expand. But extending incentives for one year, making incentives retroactive, or making incentives effective only for a short period of time does not give fleet and station owners the consistency needed to accurately formulate plans or to make informed purchasing decisions. The market will grow much faster with federal support. And if reducing our dependence on foreign oil is a priority, the most effective policy is for Congress to provide incentives for the purchase and use of NGVs. The NAT GAS Act would provide incentives for vehicles and stations and is currently being considered in congress.
Q: So, do you drive a natural gas vehicle?
BOB: Of course. I drive a Bi-Fuel 2500 HD Silverado, which runs on both natural gas and gasoline. If I have natural gas, my truck is running on it. When I don’t, it automatically switches to gasoline. Even the Mayor of Birmingham drives a natural gas Honda Civic.