Workers take natural gas Honda Civics for a spin

Tim Baldwin with York County Natural Gas Authority shows the company's new natural gas powered Honda Civic on Thursday in Rock Hill.
Tim Baldwin with York County Natural Gas Authority shows the company's new natural gas powered Honda Civic on Thursday in Rock Hill.

Tim Baldwin has been driving York County Natural Gas Authority's newest car -- and it's no ordinary car. It runs on compressed natural gas.

Baldwin, market services manager for the authority, said the company recently purchased a 2009 Honda Civic GX. The reason: It uses natural gas, a domestic fuel source, burns cleaner and costs less to operate than a gasoline engine, Baldwin said.

The authority plans to have 50 percent of its fleet running on natural gas within a few years, general manager Jim Heckle said. Plans are to buy more manufactured natural gas engine vehicles or convert some of its existing fleet to natural gas, said Heckle.

Natural gas is a mixture of hydrocarbons -- primarily methane -- that is extracted from underground reserves. With about 250 million vehicles on U.S. roads, only about 150,000 operate on natural gas, according to U.S. Department of Energy.

Most major U.S. automakers began producing natural gas vehicles in the 1980s, but abandoned production due to low demand. Honda produces the only natural gas vehicle available in the U.S.

However, gasoline vehicles can be converted to burn natural gas.

The natural gas car looks and drives similarly to its gasoline counterpart, the Honda Civic LX, Baldwin said. "If you didn't know it operated on natural gas, you would think it was a gasoline-powered vehicle," he said.

In the past, both York and Chester natural gas authorities operated converted natural gas vehicles, but this is the first time the companies have purchased a manufactured compressed natural gas car.

The car is used for company travel and is taken to community events to promote natural gas vehicles, Baldwin said.

Chester County Natural Gas Authority also recently purchased a 2009 Honda Civic GX and plans to add more natural gas vehicles to its fleet, said general manager Mike Enoch.

The city of Rock Hill has operated natural gas and other alternative fuel vehicles since 1995, Marty Burr, the city's performance manager, said.

The city uses a few natural gas vehicles -- two dump trucks and one grappler truck. The city bought the vehicles from a Chevrolet dealer that had converted the trucks' engines to natural gas-burning engines.

Burr said the city no longer uses diesel fuel in any of its vehicles. Most city vehicles, including the Rock Hill Police Department patrol cars, run on alternative fuels, Enoch said.

But with alternative-fuel vehicles, such as the Honda Civic GX, there are some differences, said Todd Mittleman, a spokesperson for Honda Cars.

One benefit is that such cars cost less to operate. The car gets an average of 225 miles on its eight-gallon equivalent tank, which costs about $13 to fill, said Baldwin.

Money is saved on maintenance costs. Because natural gas burns more cleanly, engine maintenance is only necessary about every 10,000 miles, Enoch said.

There are some disadvantages, too. The car has 2.6 less horsepower than the gas version, making it a little less powerful. And it's difficult to find a natural gas fueling station.

"Natural gas car owners need to alter their behavior and realize that you won't have as many fueling options," said Mittleman. "You have to plan your trip."

There are only about 1,200 natural gas fueling stations across the nation, and most are located in Western states, such as California and Arizona.

The only public natural gas fueling station in South Carolina is in Columbia. The three other such stations in the state are owned by businesses or government municipalities, including the Rock Hill Operations Center.

Nationally, natural gas is not used widely to power vehicles. Only about one tenth of 1 percent of natural gas is used for transportation fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The York County Natural Gas Authority is investigating the possibility of becoming a dealer of home and business refueling stations, said Baldwin.

Homes and businesses that already have natural gas can have a refueling station installed that would allow a natural gas vehicles to be filled overnight.

In homes, a device is mounted on the wall of the garage that compresses natural gas and fills the tank. The compression process is slower in the home and business fueling stations than in the public stations, which use a more powerful compression unit that can fill the tank in about five minutes, Baldwin said.

A home fueling unit costs about $4,000, Baldwin said.

The authority purchased its natural gas vehicle from Hendrick Honda in Charlotte. The Civic GX cost about $25,000. Locally, it's sold mostly to businesses because of the lack of fueling stations, salesman Ralph Condrey said.

About the Honda Civic GX

The Honda Civic GX is a natural gas-powered car. Following are a few details:

Distance: 225 miles on an eight-gallon equivalent tank

Filling up: Costs about $13

Vehicle cost: About $25,000

Engine maintenance: Needed about every 10,000 miles