Todd Wolfrum
Todd Wolfrum

A focus in our county economic development efforts has been to think different. Of course, that slogan is stolen from 1990s Apple, Inc. but it seemed to work for them so I don’t mind plagiarizing for the county’s sake. Thinking different is how we are coming to have a compressed natural gas station in Van Wert – the first in what should be a long line of innovations to come.

A few months ago, Economic Development Director Sarah Smith was talking with Phil Burnette, a local green energy proponent, about incorporating a renewable energy fair into our county fair. (Another something new for later this year.) With our windmill fields, we are interesting to green energy companies and a green energy fair in Wisconsin draws quite an annual crowd. Smith asked Burnette about a particular green energy in which she had an interest – compressed natural gas (CNG). Burnette put Smith in contact with Ron Wyss of Tersus Terra Energies. Wyss represents several renewable energy companies, including Trillium, a CNG supplier. (You may have seen Mr. Wyss sporting around town in his Tesla car a few weeks ago.)

From Smith’s previous contacts with Cooper Farms, she knew that company was looking at switching their trucks to CNG if they could find a supply. The chips fell into place pretty quickly from there, to the point where you might have read in the vwindependent and The Times Bulletin this week that a Trillium CNG station is targeted for Van Wert in the near future.

CNG has been around for a few decades but the lack of stations and the relative equality in costs between natural gas and oil made the development of vehicles and infrastructure impractical. Until now that is. With the boom brought by fracking, suddenly the equivalent cost of a gallon of CNG is about half that of gas and diesel. In Oklahoma, CNG costs just a little over a dollar a gallon. (My source: the Internet.)

CNG is safer than gasoline. It’s hard to catch on fire even if you’re trying. If a truck crashes and the tank leaks, guess what happens to CNG? It evaporates. Greenhouse gas emissions are about a third less than gasoline. According to Bill Evans, Branch Manager of Kenworth Trucks of Dayton (and, incidentally, also Ridge Township Trustee and old school chum of mine), CNG has been rapidly growing in the regional freight hauling business. One freight owner told Evans he saved $724,000 last year on his fleet of 24 trucks having switched them to CNG.

“Some big advantages besides the cost savings are that it’s domestically produced, which reduces our dependence on foreign oil,” Evans told me. “It’s a lot safer and cleaner. It’s been big in over-the-road trucking and waste hauling for some time but as more stations are built, it’s going to become more practical for people looking at CNG cars. If there’s a station built in Van Wert, I’ll be looking at one.”

Call it coincidence, but when I called Bill on Thursday for more info on CNG, he was on his commute home from Dayton. That day in Dayton, a new CNG station had opened. The price per gallon - $2.24.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that converting just 350,000 of the 2 million 18 wheelers on the road from burning imported diesel fuel to domestic natural gas would create 420,000 jobs directly and an additional 1.2 million jobs indirectly. This is the economic boom on the horizon you’ve been hearing about.

Cars can be converted to run off of CNG, but the costs are from $4,000 to $12,000 for the conversion. The only light car produced as a CNG vehicle in the factory is the Honda Civic GX. The price tag on that according to Honda’s website is $26,640 – a comparable Civic is $5,000 less. But that is changing. As natural gas becomes even more abundant – Pennsylvania says it doesn’t know what to do with what it already has – CNG cars will start being mass produced, putting the price more on par with conventional vehicles. The infrastructure, already in the works, will be created at hyper-speed. Trillium only needs 1.34 acres to build a Van Wert station. It can use the gas supply lines already in place and compress the gas on site. It needs a use commitment of 400,000 gallons a year to justify construction, which it already has from Coopers, Custom Assembly, and a few others. Since the story hit the media, we’ve received calls from other interested parties wanting in on the action. Local freight carriers won’t be far behind.

Along with the one just opened in Dayton, there are CNG stations in Kenton, Findlay, and Fort Wayne. For awhile, if we get this built, we’re going to be unique, even cutting edge. It won’t be long until everyone catches up with us, but they’ll be doing just that when they do – catching up.

And like them or loathe them, we have the windmills. They’re not nearly as interesting to the people who live among them as they are to people from everywhere else, but it’s the people from everywhere else that we’re looking to attract– the rich people with businesses whose shareholders think anything relating to green energy is cool. With one of the area’s first CNG stations, we will become even a little bit cooler to those people. To paraphrase Bill Murray in Caddyshack, “So we have that going for us, which is nice.”

———

This and other Wolfrum columns can be read at toddwolfrum.com.