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EARTHWATCH

Camarillo Firm Fuels Switch to Natural Gas : Ken Smokoska is selling an appliance for refueling cars at home. The alternative is cheaper and cleaner than gasoline.

June 15, 1995|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The smog season is upon us. Already on Sunday, ozone pollution reached unhealthful levels all over Southern California--and that's not supposed to happen on a day when there's not even commuting traffic.

Fortunately for us, an energetic local businessman, Ken Smokoska, is going to do something about the problem. This month, his Camarillo-based company, Alternative Transportation Technologies, begins selling and installing a new type of home appliance.

Long in use in Canada, the device, which is about the size of an air conditioner, allows folks to refuel a natural gas-powered car or van at home. The pollution from such vehicles is less than half of the gasoline-powered type, Smokoska says.

As reported in umpteen earlier Earthwatch columns, there are many advantages to this technology beyond fighting asthma and other health problems. Your vehicle's fuel costs would be half what they are at a service station, and your engine will last a couple of hundred thousand miles longer than usual and need infrequent tuneups.

These are important factors if you have one of those fashionably rugged vehicles for schlepping the kids around or just driving to the office.

The price of this new home compressor, the FuelMaker, is steep these days: more than $4,000. Then you have to spend about 10% of the purchase price of your car to convert it to natural gas. Smokoska's firm can handle the conversion for you, or you can take it to one of the numerous facilities springing up in Los Angeles.

But you wind up saving money: From the day of installation, you're driving around at the equivalent of 70 cents a gallon. The price of natural gas is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, not OPEC.

You don't have to surrender the ability to use plain old gasoline, by the way. You can switch back and forth. But the neat thing is that the cheapest fuel is the stuff you have waiting for you at home.

You can see why cities such as Thousand Oaks and big companies like GTE have converted their vehicle fleets to natural gas and installed compressors similar to Smokoska's at their headquarters.

Oddly enough, the Gas Co. is slackening in its desire to sell us natural gas to use in this way. Also odd is the absence of any major service station chain in our local clean-air picture. There is an independent natural gas station, Mac Valley Oil Company in Oxnard, and a Southern California Gas Co. facility open to the public in the same city. Up and down California, there are dozens of these facilities, though not attached to corner filling stations.

By way of contrast, in preparation for the Olympics in Atlanta, almost 20 service stations, part of the Amoco chain, have installed natural-gas pumps. Amoco now has 60 such facilities in the southeast. It's a classic case of "build it, and they will come."

But companies such as Exxon and Chevron, omnipresent hereabouts, have not one natural gas station in the county. It isn't as if they didn't have massive amounts of the clean-air fuel. California, where they get much of their supplies, is richly endowed with natural gas.

But thanks to the likes of Ken Smokoska, we in Ventura County are free to move ahead on our own to forge a healthy lifestyle.

Details

* FYI--For a new directory of natural-gas refueling stations in California, call (916) 448-5036; for information on natural-gas refueling appliances, call Alternative Transportation Technologies in Camarillo at 484-5599.

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