By Philip Newswanger
Expect to see heavy-duty trucks for consumers powered by a combination of gasoline and compressed natural gas by the end of this year.
General Motors Co. will introduce the dual-fuel Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups by the fourth quarter, it was announced in a Wall Street Journal article last week.
Chrysler Group LLC also announced it will build 2,000 heavy-duty Ram bi-fuel trucks starting this June.
Rising gas prices, a need to find alternative fuels and environmentally conscious consumers are driving the foray into natural gas-powered vehicles to complement electric-powered vehicles already available to consumers.
The engines will power up with gasoline, but will switch to compressed natural gas after the engine hits a certain temperature, according to Mike Allen, spokesman for the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association.
A new hybrid pickup fueled by natural gas and gasoline can travel 650 miles before it needs to refuel, Allen said. By contrast, gasoline-powered pickups have to stop around 450 miles to refuel.
Allen said Chevy may also introduce an express cargo van with a compressed natural gas component.
Even though natural gas-powered trucks and hybrids that run on gasoline and compressed natural gas are fuel-efficient and save on costs, they do have some drawbacks.
For example, having a gasoline tank and a compressed natural gas tank on board takes up too much space.
"GM sold its trucks with a natural gas component, but stopped in 2006," Allen said.
It's also harder to find places to refuel.
"If you're cruising up and down I-95, you don't see a lot of natural gas fueling stations," Allen said.
California solved the problem.
It is installing fueling stations for both compressed natural gas and electric-powered vehicles, Allen said.
There are four compressed natural gas stations in Virginia, and three of them are located in Newport News and Norfolk. The other is in Arlington.
They are public stations owned and operated by Virginia Natural Gas and Citgo in Arlington.
Automakers see gold in going green.
The Hampton Roads International Auto Show, held at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, Jan. 6-8, showcased environmental efforts by the auto industry, such as expanding gas mileage.
"The name of the game at the auto show was green," said Sean Brickell, executive vice president of the Hampton Roads Automobile Dealers Association. "It's for real, it's here."
Cities, such as Norfolk and Virginia Beach, are evaluating if they should add more natural gas-powered vehicles to their fleets.
"The city of Norfolk does not have compressed natural gas vehicles in its fleet," said Norfolk General Services Director David Freeman.
But the city does operate alternative fuel vehicles, such as Segways, bicycles and hybrid vehicles, Freeman said.
"The school system has about three pickup trucks in their inventory presently that are compressed- natural-gas-operated," Freeman said. "We are evaluating CNG vehicle migration into our existing fleet and are also evaluating opportunities to partner with other entities."
Drew Lankford, spokesman for the Virginia Beach Department of Public Works, said the city did have a handful of natural gas-powered vehicles at one time, including a van, police cruiser and a truck, but dropped them because it wasn't feasible at the time.
The repairs and the maintenance facilities were too expensive, Lankford said.
But the city has just completed a study on the feasibility of having natural gas-powered vehicles bought with grants or through a partnership with the private sector.nib