Folks driving natural gas vehicles around San Antonio will soon have less to fear about running out of fuel. This month, at a Pilot Flying J truckstop off Interstate 10, a Clean Energy fueling station is expected to flip the switch on the city’s first natural gas pumps.
The liquefied natural gas station will plug a gap in what Texas calls its “Clean Transportation Triangle,” a growing network of natural gas fueling stations along highways that link San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston. The bustling region is home to 10 percent of the nation’s traffic.
Natural gas enthusiasts say the station is one of many signals that the fuel, which burns cleaner than unleaded or diesel gas, is gaining more than a toehold in Texas’ transportation sector, as a mix of factors combine to erode long-standing barriers to expansion, including a lack of fueling infrastructure across the U.S. and the high upfront costs of natural gas vehicles.
“The tipping point has already started,” said John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association. “We’re seeing an across-the-board increase.”
Oil, of course, still has a stronghold in the auto industry, and costs continue to limit the number of natural gas-powered personal vehicles from hitting roads. But truckers, large companies, and even public agencies across Texas are increasingly purchasing natural gas vehicles in hopes of saving on long-run costs and boosting their green credentials. Those include public transit systems in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. The River City also operates the state’s largest fleet of refuse trucks.
The trend is unfolding across the country. For instance, some 60 percent of new waste trucks purchased in 2013 were powered by compressed natural gas. That was up from 3 percent in 2008, according to Americas Commercial Transportation Research.
Texas is home to 69 active natural gas fueling stations (both liquefied and compressed gas) in at least 40 cities, and more than $75 million in private investment has been put toward 62 stations, according to tracking by Pioneer Resources, a large oil and gas company that has been gradually converting its fleets to natural gas power.
It’s hard to tell how that number, which includes private stations, compares with tallies in other states because that data is not publicly available. Of all 654 public stations across the country, however, 42 are in Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The vehicle’s growth in Texas is thanks in part to the millions of dollars in grants the state has doled out in recent years. That includes $3.9 million spent on fueling stations in the “Triangle,” following passage of legislation in 2011, and nearly $1.8 million for storage and compression infrastructure in counties that struggle to meet air regulations, made possible by legislation in 2013.
“Texas is certainly leading the way,” said Patric Rayburn, a spokesman for Clean Energy Fuels, which owns more than 400 fueling stations across the country. Those policies and others are a “vote of confidence,” he said.
But Rayburn and other observers say the trend’s far bigger drivers amount to simple economics. The nation’s surge in natural gas production has made the fuel far cheaper — as much as $1.50 less per gallon, in some cases — than gasoline and diesel, while natural gas engine technology is rapidly improving, boosting mileage between fill-ups and driving down the vehicles’ upfront costs.
“That helps,” Rayburn said of the incentives, “but it is happening regardless.”