Oklahomans explore alternative fuel options 

Mark Sprowls, who works for a Honda dealership in Tulsa, finally decided to take the plunge last year and purchase one of the dealer's new Civic GX models for his family.


Sure, Sprowls thinks Hondas are great cars " he works for the company, but he truly loves the mileage.

"When my son drives it, he'll get 25 (miles per gallon) in town. I'll get 30. You know how that goes," he said, laughing. "I'm livin' the dream. It's just like a regular Civic."

However, this is not a regular Civic, and it's just about the hottest item in his employer's inventory.

"If you took the emblems off the trunk and the rear doors, somebody could walk up, jump in it and drive it," Sprowls said, "and they wouldn't have a clue of what gas they are using " whether it's gasoline or compressed natural gas."

Compressed natural gas? You bet, Sprowls said. He's selling the CNG cars so fast, he can't keep up with the orders.

"All my '08s are sold and have been for a long time," he said. "I'm taking deposits on '09s now. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to get them (customers) a car until January. The demand is just "¦ amazing. Honda doesn't even advertise this car. It's just coming out word-of-mouth. It's been phenomenal."

Sprowls and his customers are among a pioneering new breed of drivers: those who have grown tired of high-priced gas hogs that most Americans are saddled with these days. They want alternatives to the traditional gasoline-powered car.

Oklahomans especially need answers. According to a recent Common Current report cited by CNN, this state's lack of public transportation makes it particularly at risk to the oil crunch. Tulsa ranked 49th among cities vulnerable to a gas crisis in the Common Current survey.

At dead last is Oklahoma City, the study stated. With gasoline in the city nearing $4 a gallon and decisions made both long ago and recently, the city may stall at the crossroads. Now what?

For Sprowls, the trip to the filling station is fun, like a trip back in time to 1978.

"Currently, through the Oklahoma Natural Gas facilities, the public ones, it's 90.9 cents per gallon," Sprowls said. "I'm still smiling every time I pull away from a fill station. The most I've put in has been $5.20."

However, those fill-ups are a little more frequent. Compressed natural gas takes up more space than gasoline, which provides more miles to the gallon than CNG. That leaves the Honda with a 180- to 200-mile range on its eight-gallon tank. In fact, the tank uses around six gallons before it has to be filled back up.

"It's not a cross-country car. It's intended to be used as a commuter car, basically," Sprowls said. "Another concern that some people have, that can be worked around, is, like, you can't take it over to Arkansas. There are absolutely no public fill stations in the state of Arkansas."

Sprowls said that is what one's other car is for " you know, the gasoline-driven one sitting unused next to the Honda in the driveway.

"So, you park (the Honda)," he said. "You call a rent-a-car for the weekend, or you take the other car on the trip, and jump back into your CNG car on Monday and go about your business."

The other problem is the price tag. At around $25,000, Honda's GX is pricier than a hybrid. While the argument might be made that the price could work itself out over years of buying 90-cent gas, according to Sprowls there is actually a quicker payoff to beat the cost.

"Most folks are eligible for the tax credits," he said. "From the federal government, it's $4,000, but it gets better: From the state, it's $3,415 " for a total of $7,400. If you are disciplined enough when you get your taxes back, you take that money and refinance the car " you are looking at financing a little over $18,000."

The regular price of the gasoline-driven Civic LX four-door, with similar package, is about $18,400, he said.

Honda will start production within the next 30 days for the first shipment of '09 Civic CNGs, said Carlton Fuller of metro-based Eskridge Honda. Six of the first 10 allotments already have deposits on them.

But what about those already stuck with, say, a General Motors Corp. Chevy Impala or Avalanche pickup? Trips to the filling station are most certainly not fun. At least not right now. But help might be on the way from Iowa. 

Actually, new models of Impala or Avalanche " or, for that matter, the Tahoe and a host of others from GM " are "flexible-fuel" vehicles, designed to run either on gasoline or on a mix of 85 percent alcohol and 15 percent gasoline, called E85. Same with Ford and many other car manufacturers. Even that big, honkin' Suburban has a chance at saving at the pump.

Finding a station that uses E85, however, is frustrating in the Oklahoma City area. In fact, in the whole state, according to an online search, four stations that carry the fuel all turned up in the Tulsa area.

Oklahoma Gazette contacted one. The station manager, who requested to remain anonymous, acknowledged that business in the fuel has been brisk. With its price as much as 60 cents cheaper than that of regular gasoline, the station sells out on a regular basis. The manager said the fuel comes from Iowa, where vast acres of corn are converted into ethanol. However, the manager said its corporate offices forbid the filling station to be interviewed on the subject. Calls to the corporate offices were not returned.

However, some in the metro area have no problem at all purchasing ethanol fuel. The city of Edmond, which has 24 vehicles that run on E85, gets regular deliveries.

"It's working very well," said Jerry Smith, assistant city manager of operations. "We have two dozen vehicles that are equipped to run on E85. We have our solid waste fleet running on "¦ biodiesel. That all seems to be working out really well."

He said many of the city's vehicles purchased from GM are ready for the fuel, which means they do not need to be specially converted. These include police patrol cars as well as other vehicles.

"There are no maintenance problems or issues associated with these alternative fuels, and we are very pleased with the performance of these vehicles," Smith said. "And, it's cheaper." 

The city purchases fuel free of federal or state tax " about 63 cents on the gallon, according to Smith. Edmond's most recent purchase of gasoline, sans tax, was at $3.38 a gallon. However, ethanol was $2.32 a gallon. With biodiesel, the cost is only a little cheaper than that of regular diesel, Smith said. Normal diesel was $4.14 a gallon, but biodiesel was $3.91.

"That changed," he said. "It used to be higher."

One thing that aids in using alternative fuels is the fleet concept, Smith said. A central car pool means that vehicles are returned to the compound after work, where the fuel awaits them, instead of requiring one find an outside source.

"When we need E85, we order it from our fuel vendor," he said. "They then deliver it to our fleet maintenance facility at Cross Timbers (Municipal Complex). The same with biodiesel."

This strategy also aids municipalities that choose compressed natural gas for their fuel. However, Smith pointed out, there are higher startup costs associated with CNG.

"We've been approached about compressed natural gas and we are going to look into it," Smith said. "It's my understanding we could purchase CNG for 63 cents a gallon, and that would include federal and state tax. But "¦ the fueling stations are kind of expensive. I don't know how much those cost. We are going to look at the ins and outs for that. Converting the vehicles to run on CNG is also expensive. But it's a short rate of return, so that's something we are looking into."

One thing that ethanol and biodiesel have on CNG " they are renewable. Both come from plant products. However, the conversion process has not been worked out in the United States very efficiently. While Brazil, which makes its ethanol from sugarcane, at a rate of eight gallons of ethanol produced per gallon of gasoline consumed, the U.S. has very, very modest returns. According to a biofuels comparison by National Geographic Society, the return on one gallon of gasoline expended to produce corn ethanol is 1.3.

Oklahoma State University reports that other crops, such as sweet sorghum (from which comes sorghum molasses), would be comparable to sugarcane. Switchgrass, however, which is inedible as a food crop, could have an ethanol return of up to 36 gallons for every gallon of fossil fuel used, according to the National Geographic Society. But the process is still in the experimental state, one OSU research official told Gazette.

There is one other way possible right now in Oklahoma to beat the high cost of gasoline for one's car: Forgo the use of the internal combustion engine. 

Mike Barkley, who lives near Lake Texoma, is one of the few people in the state who never has to put gasoline in his Mitsubishi Eclipse. That's because he threw the engine away a couple years ago.

In place of the burned-out steel block of cylinders and valves, Barkley mounted an aircraft electric generator, wired it to some golf cart batteries in the back, and slapped a charge on them. Now, for several years, he's had an electric car.

"I can drive 35 miles with it. My drive back and forth to Durant is probably no more than a 20-mile round trip after I get through. But ideally, I could do 35 on a charge," Barkley said. "Typically these vehicles are used for the commute back and forth to work, or to the store. It's not a long-range trip."

That is the main issue with electric cars: Even the best rarely can travel more than 100 miles. But for only dimes a charge, even a 35-mile range looks good for a short trip.

"If you are in a city environment, they are real doable," Barkley said. "You can take side streets. You don't have to build a vehicle that does highway speeds."

Barkley's is one of those vehicles. Although it can drive as fast as 65 miles per hour, he said, that speed can't be maintained for long. His motor is only 80 volts. He said that hobbyists like him often build cars made with 120-volt engines, but there's a catch: It's illegal to do so in the state of Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma has what I consider an odd law for electric vehicles. Unless you become certified to work on or build them, you can't build a vehicle that runs over 80 volts," he said. "They built this law into the alternative fuels act of Oklahoma."

To become certified, Barkley said he would have to travel to the metro area from Durant to attend the only class offered in the state. This is why there aren't a lot of electric cars in Oklahoma, he said.

"To be honest, the law really hurts us up here in that regard," he said. "I don't have the time and money to go to Oklahoma City and take that course. It's disgruntling to think I can't do that up here. Maybe eventually we can get that overturned." " Ben Fenwick

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