Noise is the latest issue challenging the roll-out of compressed natural gas (CNG) as an alternative fuel source in the Gunnison Valley. A complaint from a neighbor of Gunnison’s sole CNG station led the company that owns the facility to install mitigation measures late last week.
Yet, it’s not the first hiccup surrounding local leaders’ push for greater adoption of CNG. This past fall, a newly acquired Gunnison Valley Rural Transportation Authority (RTA) bus would not run as intended on fuel from the Trillium CNG-owned station in Gunnison. While that problem appears to have been solved, those with close ties to the fuel’s use and source locally are still adjusting to the change.
The Gunnison station opened last September, spurred by a contract between Gunnison County and Trillium in which the county guarantees sales volume over 10 years. The move is intended to spark greater use of CNG throughout the region — while at the same time supporting Colorado jobs in the natural gas industry. Additionally, CNG is cheaper at the pump than gasoline or diesel and also offers environmental benefits.
But as with any new fuel and its accompanying technology, there have been challenges.
Most recently, Gunnison Police Chief Keith Robinson said a neighbor of the CNG station — located at Gunnison Tire and Auto Repair, 508 W. Tomichi Ave. — complained about noise levels emitted by a compressor. Robinson only tested the decibel level to determine whether it was allowable under city code on Friday after Trillium installed equipment to quiet the compressor.
However, Robinson found the noise from traffic along Tomichi Avenue, or Hwy. 50, itself to exceed the decibel threshold in code.
“Our code uses the state’s which is 65 (decibels) during daytime hours,” he explained. “Hwy. 50 if you just stand there, depending upon what cars are going past, will go as high as 70.”
Currently, the compressor’s noise during the daytime doesn’t impact readings caused mostly by traffic passing by. However, Robinson indicated that Trillium is looking into the feasibility of replacing a motor to further quiet the facility.
“We’re just going to monitor the sound level at different times of the day and night,” Robinson said. “It will tell us two things. It will give us a better idea of what is a reasonable sound level within town, and then we’ll be able to see if this motor when it’s running has an impact on what the already present noise is.”
Vehicles growing in number
The RTA bus and 11 vehicles owned by the county — including Sheriff’s Office and Public Works trucks which are “dual fuel,” meaning they can utilize both CNG and gasoline — are presently fueling demand at the station, which is open to the public.
RTA continues to be the biggest user of the fuel locally, expecting to put 90,000 miles on its sole CNG bus this year, with the possibility of additional buses coming online in future years.
There’s still hope for other fleets to adopt CNG as well. Facilities and Grounds Director John Cattles, who also oversees sustainable operations for Gunnison County, noted that state agencies are mandated to purchase CNG vehicles in some instances. Federal agencies also have expressed interest. The county is hoping that private fleets adopt the fuel too.
In accordance with the county’s agreement with Trillium, the Gunnison station is committed to selling a certain amount of fuel over 10 years — equalling about 100,000 “gasoline gallon equivalents” in the first three years and ramping up in volume after that. The county serves as a “backstop” for those sales, agreeing to pay for a portion of fuel costs if goals are not reached.
“We feel confident that with the RTA, the state’s and ours that we’ll make that,” Cattles said. “And if some private fleets come around that’s even better.”
New technology leads to problems
Yet, mechanical problems with the biggest user of the fuel — the RTA’s bus — may be cause for caution. The culprit in the case of the bus had to do with fuel at the station sourced from a pipeline abnormally high in methane content, explained Cattles.
“The irony is, that’s what all the manufacturers have been asking for,” he said. “It was just a matter of tuning the controller to handle that and still be within all the regulatory parameters. It took a little bit of tweaking.”
John Zeikus, owner of Apex Motorworks, isn’t surprised by the mechanical mishap. He worked as fleet manager for Alpine Express, which is contracted to operate the RTA buses, from 2004-2015.
Zeikus said he had prior knowledge from the manufacturer of the CNG bus’ motor, as well as another bus fleet, that the vehicles had experienced problems. He said he suggested waiting until those issues were ironed out before going the CNG route.
“Anytime you adopt new technology and you’re an early adopter, there are going to be issues,” he said.
Additionally, Cattles noted that a mechanic certified to service CNG fueling systems does not currently exist in Gunnison.
“We need to work on that,” he said.
County committed to fuel
The biggest difference between CNG for vehicles and natural gas to homes and businesses is pressure. CNG for vehicles is about 3,500 pounds per square inch, compared to about five for residences and commercial settings.
Brian Oliver — owner of Gunnison Tire and Auto, where the CNG station is located — has expressed interest in his mechanics becoming trained. The shop is currently in the process of expanding in size, which could accommodate the work.
“I’d have to send some guys to Denver to take some courses to get certified to work on (CNG) vehicles,” he said. “None of it is real hard. There’s not a lot of difference between a natural gas car and a gasoline car. It’s different fuel but the same kind of setup.”
Despite those challenges, Cattles points to environmental benefits which helped push the county to back CNG — including plans for purchasing additional vehicles in coming years.
The county’s purchase agreement with Trillium also includes an allotment of “Renewable Natural Gas” (RNG) — or methane obtained from biomass — for its vehicles and the RTA. Credits for the equivalent of 25,000 gallons per year of RNG result in a reduction of about 110 metric tons annually greenhouse gases from the RTA bus alone — as compared to a diesel.
In factoring those benefits and others, Cattles concluded, “CNG is the alternative fuel for medium and heavy vehicles.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)