So far there are only a couple of hundred cars, trucks and buses in San Diego County that have been converted to run on clean-burning natural gas. But the number is rising, and North County has become a real testing ground for vehicles powered by the alternative fuel.
Until now, conversion has been necessary if a gasoline-powered vehicle was to run on natural gas. But major Detroit companies announced last week that, beginning this spring, they will produce vans and pickups factory-equipped to run on natural gas. When initial plans were announced last year to produce 2,000 such vehicles, 10,000 orders flooded in. Production is now being speeded up, and orders can be filled in 1992 instead of '93, as originally envisioned.
Natural gas is getting a push because it creates less than half the air pollution liquid gasoline does and is abundant in North America. Five dollars spent on natural gas will take you twice as far as $5 worth of gasoline, and the fuel extends engine life dramatically. In addition, the potential exists to be able to refuel a vehicle at home by tapping into existing gas lines.
Test programs backed by San Diego Gas & Electric Co. involving the use of the fuel have been launched over the past year at schools, city halls and private businesses in North County.
The county's first regular service station to install a pump for natural gas-powered cars and trucks is in Vista. Customers can tank up on natural gas at about 70 cents a gallon at Shadowridge Unocal at the Sycamore exit off California 78.
"It's too early to tell what's going to happen from a business standpoint, but someone had to be the first to do it," said Irene Tabor, who, with her husband, Fred, operates the station.
The Vista Unified School District added natural gas buses to its fleet in September, and North County Transit in Oceanside, which last year had only one such bus, has ordered five more. (The agency has an on-site compressor to fuel the buses at night.)
Vista City Manager Morris Vance, who has driven test cars provided by SDG&E, is ready to consider adding factory-equipped natural gas trucks to the city fleet.
"Now that Detroit has announced they're going to make trucks originally equipped to use natural gas," he said, "the city is going to give them a real hard look. I'd like to see something like that happen here."
In the private sector, Rancho Bernardo resident Steve Thompson has just begun converting his business' fleet of 60 trucks--which make dozens of trips a day around North County--to natural gas. As manager of the biggest Stanley Steemer carpet cleaning franchise in the nation, he said, he was looking for ways to save money and be a good environmental citizen at the same time.
"I'm going to save $50 a week per vehicle," said Thompson, who's outfitting five existing GM trucks, the first private-fleet operator in the county to do so. His efforts qualify for a rebate program from SDG&E.
The county's first full-time facility for converting gasoline-powered vehicles to natural gas opened last week on Kearny Mesa. Operating under contract with SDG&E, Hawthorne Power Systems has set up six bays, where it expects to perform 300 conversions in the next 18 months, according to Howard Levin of SDG&E.
The conversion is expensive--about $4,000 per vehicle--and involves installing high-tech tanks to hold compressed natural gas and adjusting the existing engine to accommodate the new fuel. The payoff is in reduced engine wear. Research shows that natural gas-powered engines show little or no wear even after 300,000 miles.
In the United States overall, there are 30,000 natural gas-powered vehicles.
The infrastructure for refueling natural gas vehicles at home is already in place: The gas lines under America's streets bring this cheap source of energy to 53 million utility hookups. To be able to tank up at home requires installation of a special compressor, a smaller version of what a gas station would use.
A home compressor unit costs about $3,000. Fleet and service station setups use holding tanks at the site. The home compressor connects directly to the natural gas tank in your car or truck, in a process not unlike using an overnight battery charger. This is the "slow fill" mode.
An SDG&E-supplied slow-fill unit can be seen at Coronado City Hall, but it's for official use only.
The city pays the equivalent of 70 cents a gallon for the gas, a rate set by the California Public Utilities Commission. If SDG&E customers set up home units, they can buy natural gas for the equivalent of 35 cents a gallon, also a mandated rate.
At a clean-air vehicle show in Los Angeles recently, visitors got a dramatic, close-up look at what has made natural gas-powered vehicles so attractive.
The display featured an aspirin bottle filled with sooty powder. Visitors were asked to guess how long it took a regular truck's exhaust pipe to spew that much gunk into the air. I guessed an hour. The right answer was one minute.