story by Michael Tilley
An agreement Wednesday (July 16) by the Springdale Water and Sewer Commission to buy two compressed natural gas (CNG) trucks is proof that efforts by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, the Northwest Arkansas Council and others to push for CNG infrastructure and acceptance in the region are beginning to show results.
With the purchase of two compressed natural gas vehicles, Springdale Water Utilities will become the first public entity in Northwest Arkansas to use CNG. According to a statement from the utility department, the two vehicles are a pilot program to determine whether cost savings can be accomplished by converting more of the utility's more than 70 vehicle to reliance on the alternative fuel.
Utility officials said the decision was spurred in part by news that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission approved a $400,000 rebate to convenience store operator Kum & Go to help it provide CNG as a fuel at its Springdale location near Interstate 49 and Elm Springs Road. The AEDC, through its energy office, earlier this year provided an identical $400,000 rebate to Kum & Go that will allow it to provide CNG at its location on Robinson Road near the Springdale Municipal Airport.
"With the announcement on the second CNG station in Springdale on Friday, we immediately fast tracked this opportunity and asked our commission to approve the purchase," Springdale Water Utility Executive Director Heath Ward said in a statement. "That demonstrates our enthusiasm for CNG and wanting Springdale Water to be at the forefront. I think the possibilities are great and others will follow our lead. The timing of everything to happen this fast was perfect.”
The state Energy Office has also made $150,000 available statewide to pay for a portion of a CNG vehicle's cost. Ward said his office will apply for those funds.
The rebate program applies to fleet operators for the conversion to CNG/propane or the purchase of a CNG/propane fleet. The rebate amount is dependent upon the cost of conversion or incremental cost of a clean fuel vehicle and allows for a rebate equivalent to the lesser of 50 percent of the conversion/incremental cost or $4,500 per vehicle.
“The popularity of clean fuel vehicles continues to rise, but more can be done to entice consumers to make the switch to clean fuels,” said Mitchell Simpson, deputy director of the Arkansas Energy Office. “By providing incentives to both fleet operators and fuel stations, there is a better opportunity for alternative motor fuels to take hold.”
Rob Smith, a spokesman for the Northwest Arkansas Council, said improving access for CNG use is a piece of the overall effort to better market the region.
“Just like museums and the arts and all those important elements, it takes many things to make a region more attractive. … This is one of those things, and it’s now one of our strategic action items,” Smith said.
The Council in April last year approved a new strategic action focused on informing public entities and private companies about the cost-saving advantages provided by CNG. It is the only strategic action item added following the late 2011 rollout of the overall action plan.
“Since that time, Council staff has remained in communication with companies, school districts, local governments, state officials and legislators about CNG,” noted a post on the Council’s website.
Until the Kum & Go CNG pumps are completed, CNG isn't available in Northwest Arkansas. CNG stations are operating in Conway, Damascus, Fort Smith, Jonesboro Little Rock, and North Little Rock. A station is being developed in West Memphis, and Arkansas Oklahoma Gas Corp. is working on its second station in Fort Smith. The first AOG station in Fort Smith was the first public CNG station in Arkansas, and it opened to the public in April 2011.
The Fort Smith Board of Directors in September 2013 agreed to a plan in which the city will begin attempts to incorporate compressed natural gas vehicles into the city's moving fleet as older vehicles are aged out and replaced. At the time, City Administrator Ray Gosack said as the 2014 budgeting process moved forward, he would make sure that a focus on CNG vehicle purchases was a part of the city's fleet replacement plans. But he cautioned that a large influx of CNG-powered vehicles may still be a long way off due to the fact that the city must work within budget constraints.
Nationwide, there is a growing movement to convert private and public fleet vehicles to use CNG. Truck manufacturers like Navistar, Volvo and Kenworth began rolling out natural gas engines in 2013 and 2014. Many of the new engines permit natural gas carriers to carry heavier and longer loads than was previously available. Service and maintenance facilities are also being upgraded to handle natural gas engine operation and repair.
In October 2012, Chrysler Group announced that it would make a natural gas powered Ram Truck available for the broad retail market. At the time, Chrysler joined Honda Motor Co. as the only automakers selling compressed natural gas vehicles to U.S. retail consumers.
Beginning in April 2012, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) were leaders in what became a 22-state “bipartisan” effort to convince major automakers to build more affordable compressed natural gas vehicles. Arkansas joined the effort in late 2012.
Oklahoma officials have also worked with the private sector to encourage construction of CNG stations. The state was expected to have 100 CNG fueling stations by the end of 2013, well ahead of the 31 stations in 2010. According to the industry, 100 stations would allow CNG users to travel anywhere in the state.