HUNTSVILLE — When gasoline prices soared as America struggled to recover from economic recession a few years ago, Larry West and Scott Appalachian Industries knew of a viable alternative.
West, who founded SAI in 1984 and has since grown the non-profit organization into one of Scott County’s leading employers, began using compressed natural gas in some of the vehicles that were part of the company’s fleet not long after he got started. And as pump prices topped $3, he knew it was time to return to the tried-and-true method.
These days, there is a large and growing number of compressed natural gas (CNG) stations across Tennessee. But that wasn’t true as recently as six years ago. In 2012 there were only three such stations in the entire Volunteer State: One in Nashville, one in Morgan County that was owned by Citizens Gas Utility District, and one at SAI in Huntsville.
“We thought it was gonna save us money. And we thought if it was a good idea, we needed to be able to share it with the community,” West said Friday as he reflected back on SAI’s decision to build a CNG station in 2012.
Since that time, gasoline prices have fallen. CNG failed to take off in Scott County, although it’s doing well in other states and some other communities. Some places like Somerset, have found state subsidies to be well worth the investment. The federal government has stopped offering incentives for converting vehicles from gasoline to CNG. But rising oil prices have been in the headlines almost daily this summer. The Middle East remains a powder keg. And the advantages of CNG remain the same. With another surge in gasoline prices seemingly inevitable, SAI appears to be poised for the future — a future that could potentially see America finally reduce its dependence on foreign oil.
Back in the 1980s, when Scott Appalachian Industries first began using compressed natural gas in some of its vehicles, the gas was purchased from a well on James Yancey’s Huntsville farm. SAI received a pair of grants from the Tennessee Valley Authority, and used the funds to convert two vans from gasoline to CNG.
“We were paying 50 cents equivalent when gas was $1,” West said. “So we basically cut the cost in half.”
So as gas prices soared in the early 2010s and the federal government once again began to promote CNG as an alternative to gasoline, West knew what his organization needed to do.
“When the government started encouraging it, we just started doing it again,” West said. “There’s a lot of people who are afraid we’re going to make some money on it or something. I don’t know about that, but it has saved us money.”
SAI completed construction of its CNG station, the third in the state, in 2012. The organization also converted several of its vehicles to CNG. Today, SAI has two buses on the road that are completely dedicated to CNG, and seven more vehicles that can run on either CNG or gasoline.
The way it works is simple: SAI purchases its natural gas from Citizens Gas; the organization has a meter just like any other home or business. At the CNG station, located in front of SAI’s sprawling facility just off S.R. 63 in the middle of town, the natural gas is compressed, with pumps that aren’t dissimilar to gasoline pumps used to fuel up vehicles that run on CNG rather than on gasoline.
A Safe Alternative
“The community is a little scared of compressed natural gas,” said Scott Appalachian Industries administrative director Kaprecia Babb. “They think gas, explosive. But this isn’t explosive like gasoline. We cook with natural gas in our homes. Would you cook with gasoline in your home? Or run your furnace inside your house with gasoline?”
West explained that natural gas is volatile; it is flammable. That’s what makes it a source of power, after all. But, he adds, “gasoline has killed a lot more people than natural gas.
“Really, if people looked at natural gas through an instrument, it is a lot safer than gasoline is,” West added.
Compressed natural gas doesn’t necessarily increase a vehicle’s miles-per-gallon efficiency; West and his staff once thought that it might, but he admits now that “we may have been hoping for something that wasn’t there.” But it doesn’t decrease the MPG efficiency, either. And the advantages are tremendous.
For starters, natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline. SAI’s vans undergo an oil change every 10,000 miles, and West said the used oil comes out cleaner at 10,000 miles in the CNG-powered vans than it does at 4,000 miles in SAI’s gasoline-powered vehicles.
“A lot of people claim they can run three times as far on natural gas without needing a mechanical overhaul,” West said. “The oil is cleaner, so the engine is better.”
There are also the cost advantages to consider. In recent months, as gasoline prices dipped to $2 per gallon, gasoline was actually cheaper than CNG, which has remained at $2.20 per gallon equivalent at SAI’s station. But the cost of natural gas is much more stable than the cost of gasoline. As gas prices inch back towards $3 per gallon this summer, SAI’s pump price for CNG is still in the $2.20s.
There’s an environmental component: converting a single 18-wheeler to compressed natural gas is the equivalent of taking 35 vehicles off the road.
And there’s a potential economic impact: one car on CNG typically uses as much natural gas as seven homes. “When we put a vehicle on natural gas, we’ve added seven homes to Citizens Gas’s system,” West said. “Citizens Gas employs 20-something people. If people are using natural gas instead of gasoline, they may have 100 employees someday.”
Then there’s the fact that natural gas is readily available close to home. Scott County’s natural gas reserves are surprisingly big. Although there was an uptick in exploratory drilling a few years ago, there isn’t a lot of natural gas production going on here at home at the moment. But that could change.
“If we get to where we’re using it enough, it may become more feasible to start buying gas here in this county from people who’ve got it,” West said. “One thing about it, it’s America’s gas. They say we’ve got more natural gas than we could ever use.”
In the current economic climate, there’s a lot of talk of “America first,” meaning this nation should place its own interests at the forefront of its policies. That begins to get to the real crux of West’s reasoning when he talks about converting to compressed natural gas.
“The real reason we did this is it’s the people’s duty to try to do things that make sense,” he said. “How many people have we gotten killed in the Arab countries? We send our men and women over to fight for oil. We don’t need their oil. Why give our money to people who don’t like us? We’re financing their whole war machine.”
The cost of gasoline, West believes, is far greater than the cost that consumers pay at the pump.
“I’ve always said that the cost at the pump isn’t half of it. It isn’t half the cost,” West said. “We’re paying these Middle Eastern countries for the gas, then they’re using that money to fight us and we’re having to pay for those wars.
“Our natural gas is here,” he added. “We shouldn’t have to fight to protect our natural gas, but we can’t tell what’s going to happen in the Middle East. One thing is for sure, though: as long as we’re depending on their petroleum, we’re going to be over there fighting every time they have some kind of problem.”
If gasoline prices return to $4 per gallon, West said, compressed natural gas will be seen as a wonderful alternative, endorsed by the federal government and embraced by a society more eager to reduce its dependence on gasoline as a cost-saving measure.
“We’re ready to utilize it,” West said. “We’ve already got it on a lot of our vehicles. The government isn’t giving tax incentives for conversions right now, but they may restore some of those.”
Compressed natural gas isn’t for everyone. Converting a vehicle to CNG can be costly. SAI has paid as much as $20,000 to convert a vehicle, and converted several more for around $5,000. If you have a vehicle with solid fuel efficiency, averaging above 20 mpg, you “probably don’t want to invest in changing it over to natural gas,” West said. But for government agencies and businesses that operate larger vehicles with far less fuel efficiency, CNG could be the future.
“We need to get to the point to where natural gas is available to the point that you don’t have to have both a natural gas tank and a gasoline tank,” West said.
That point will be reached when additional CNG stations are installed across Tennessee and the nation. Some states, like Oklahoma and Utah, are already there and have been for years.
In the meantime, SAI’s compressed natural gas station is available for public use, in addition to serving the organization’s own purposes. As many as 25 vehicles have been on SAI’s client list, and there are many others who come through the region and stop by SAI to fuel up — including commercial garbage trucks that are being moved from Indiana to Southern cities like Asheville and Atlanta and detour from Interstate 75 to Huntsville for a tank of CNG at SAI’s station.
“The biggest thing is it’s available here,” West said. “We have made our pumps public. We have natural gas here, and people in Scott County can have natural gas in their vehicles if they want it.”
This story is the July 2018 installment of Profiles of a 3-Star Community, presented by the Industrial Development Board of Scott County on the second week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this story can be found on Page B10 of the July 12, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.